South African players embrace following their Rugby World Cup Pool B game at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa against Italy, in Shizuoka, Japan, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Picture: AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama
Team culture can be the death of you, but it may also give you new life. It makes you part of a “bomb squad” of a national rugby side - a mark of belonging; and at the same time makes you a victim of racism, as on the face of it was the case for the dynamic Springbok wing, Makazole Mapimpi.

In what has become a topic of intense public debate, a viral video shows Mapimpi ostensibly shooed and then walking away from a huddle of white players that celebrate the team’s victory over Italy at the Rugby World Cup.

Social media pundits were quick to claim persistent racism and continuing racial divisions in the team for what transpired.

Mapimpi soon took to social media to address the furore, as did Rassie Erasmus, the Springbok coach - what seemed to be a racial incident in actual fact was an expression of team culture and tradition.

The bomb squad seems to be a match-day group of bench players who must bring a high-impact game to the field at a later stage of the game, when fresh legs and snappy running becomes critical.

To define reserve players as a group of specialists that must ensure victory, rather than a group of second-rate players that must serve as a backup to the first choice team, represents an attempt at re-framing team dynamics.

A strict hierarchy that distinguishes only between those that are selected for the starting line-up and those not, demands little else than fierce competition as players vie for places, a team culture that may quickly turn toxic. Toxic team cultures turn inspirational when different players each have a unique contribution to make and form part of close-knit groups with different, but critical roles to play to achieve team success.

Team cultures draw on the deeply human needs for a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. A sense of “belonging” refers to one’s wish to be part of that community of people you admire most. A sense of “purpose” refers to one’s need to make a unique contribution to that community and be recognised for it.

South Africa's Makazole Mapimpi runs in to score a try during the Rugby World Cup Pool B game at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa between South Africa and Italy, in Shizuoka, Japan, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Picture: AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama.

As a rule we assume our sense of belonging and of purpose are achievements in a community that individuals must reach for and realise on their own initiative - people design their own belonging and purposes, we believe.

However, the dramatic arrival of the bomb squad on the public stage reveals that team cultures have a significant impact on the sense of belonging and purpose of members of teams and diverse types of communities. The members of the bomb squad celebrated their unique role in and contribution to the team’s victory, and Mapimpi, who wasn’t part of the squad for the game against Italy, honoured it.

What sets the bomb squad apart is that its membership changes with every next game, with different players selected for the bench. This means the selection of players is not based on the sameness of individuals, but the shared purpose of a successful campaign, and the shared sense of belonging that manifests when each player must make and is valued for their unique contribution.

Shared purposes that invite unique contributions by each of its members become possible only when shared values make up the heart of a team. Such teams give new life; such teams make for team leaders that can set a nation’s heart at ease; such teams make for a Makazole Mapimpi.

* Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus