Durban — Universities can draw valuable insights from the Springboks regarding the power of diversity and inclusion.
In clinching their fourth world title, the Springboks defeated the formidable All Blacks in an epic final that harked back to their iconic 1995 victory – a moment celebrated as one of the most significant nation-building milestones worldwide.
Upon the Springboks’ return, captain Siya Kolisi declared: “This one is for every single person in South Africa, rich or poor – it doesn’t matter. This win will inspire a lot of people, but it won’t change their circumstances. However, for us players, it’s going to give us a platform to create more opportunities.”
Kolisi’s words are a poignant reminder that even after the Cinderella-like 1995 victory, South Africa grappled with enduring challenges.
Bringing social justice to all South Africans can be realised by establishing pathways to well-being and prosperity, a role that universities play. Education and innovation serve as vital routes out of poverty and the shadows of historical injustices.
The academic foundations Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber received at the University of the Free State undoubtedly contributed to their excellence as coaches. Erasmus and Nienaber collaborated with a talented and diverse technical staff, including Mzwandile Stick, Deon Davids, Daan Human and Andy Edwards. The 2023 squad, with 41% identified as black players, was not only the most racially diverse Springbok team, but also an embodiment of South African rugby traditions and styles, blending the high-altitude 10-men rugby of Gauteng with the flair and abandon often seen at lower altitudes. The result was world-beating.
Moreover, the squad had 16 overseas players, nearly half the 33 allowed. The overseas Springboks brought new perspectives and skill sets, creating a beautiful collage of mixed and crossed backgrounds, cultures and heritages. Their success emphasises that all achievements stem from co-operation and interwoven engagements. This challenges the notion of pure nations, ethnicities, races, genders and sexes, highlighting that it is unfounded, unrealistic, and misanthropic.
In contrast, the New Zealand Rugby Union decided in 2000 to exile players who signed overseas contracts to enhance competitiveness by maintaining a shared playing culture within the All Blacks. The notion of exceptionalist island insularity contradicts the All Blacks’ otherwise evident openness to diversity and inclusion. Immigrant influences from the Pacific Islands have been integral to their success, with 45% of the All Blacks’ 2023 squad boasting Pacific heritage.
Reflecting on the 2019 World Cup triumph, rugby writer Alex McLeod noted that nine Springbok squad members were playing outside South Africa, emphasising their indispensable contributions to the victory. “Without the presence of those individuals, it’s questionable as to whether Siya Kolisi would have ever lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Yokohama,” he said.
Like the Springboks, the University of the Free State (UFS) has chosen to embrace diversity and inclusion to address interconnected needs.
The Springboks have exemplified the importance of embracing diversity with care. The touching moment captured in the documentary series Chasing the Sun”, where Erasmus sheds tears upon realising that winger Makazole Mapimpi lacks a family photograph to attach to his Springbok jersey, serves as a poignant example. Such acts of care unite people and empower them to overcome odds. This understanding drives the UFS’s approach to enhancing its global reputation by reconciling all who belong to it within the pursuit of excellence and care.
Universities can glean from the Springboks that the path of inclusion and diversity compels us to reconsider who we are, who belongs and how belonging is constructed. A genuine embrace of inclusion and diversity challenges us to re-evaluate the boundaries we impose on ourselves and others, urging us to acknowledge our diverse origins in a decolonial manner that allows everyone to achieve their fullest potential.
The Springboks have shown that embracing diversity and inclusion is a powerful strategy for achieving excellence.
Chasi is director of the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice at the University of the Free State
Independent on Saturday