By Rendani Nematswerani
The 2023 Rugby World Cup saw South African national rugby team, the Springboks, marking an historic mark by clinching their fourth Rugby World Cup championship, thus becoming the leading Rugby World Cup champions. The impressive victory of the Springboks sparked contending political debates and discussions.
The debates and discussions postulated that the Springboks are emblematic of the historical pain inflicted by Apartheid hitherto through its wanton national exclusion of Black people – anti-Black racism, while others postulated that the country have healed from the pains of the past, and the people of South Africa must rally behind Springboks with the same structure as it is.
The President and Commander-in-Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Julius Malema during the EFF Gauteng Provincial Ground Forces Forum alluded that Springboks, Amabokoboko, Die Bokke is an apartheid symbol, an emblem that echoes the historical pain inflicted by them and thus the very symbolism must be replaced with symbolism that is reflects democracy like Bafana Bafana is regardless of its shortcomings that are attributed by the decaying current government. On the contrary, the leader of Patriotic Alliances (PA), Gayton McKenzie stood contrary to the views of the Malema by positing that the people of South Africa have moved on from the historical injustices of the past, and thus relegated apartheid racist connotations to the dustbin of history.
The History of Racism in Sports
Despite the totemic recitations embedded in apartheid apologism as it was evidently demonstrated through the latter Rugby World Cup victory of Springboks that seeks to vindicate the South African national rugby team of Apartheid remnants and/or that racism is only a dead or diminished phenomenon that does not either impinge sports or strangulate the national unity. Historically, racism as an all-rounder social prejudice which was used a discriminatory tactic by the White ruling class, pervaded all sports. Rugby, however, seem to be a focal arena whence the greatest pain was hysterically felt. The Afrikaner nationalists myopically claimed and monopolised Rugby as their own birth sport.
In circa 1911, the South African Coloured Football Rugby Board (SACFRB) ― representing all players of colour at the time ― wrote to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) about a probable tour. However, the NZRFU enquired with South African Rugby Board (SARB) (which was purely white) to ask about their awareness and credentials of the SACFRB, the racist SARB debunked and rubbished the existence and legitimacy of the SACFRB that the Afrikaner did not have any form of dealings with them whatsoever. This Afrikaner rugby supremacist complex saw New Zealanders utterly rejecting the tour proposal under the racist obdurate rationale that they would only host South African based teams that have affiliation or association with whites-only ― the SARB. This signify the anti-black institutionalised racism embedded in Rugby.
Springbok as historical symbolism of Whiteness in Rugby
The primary Springbok colours were initiated by the then captain of the national team, Paul Roos, during the whites-only rugby tour in 1906-1907 of the Northern Hemisphere under the available guidelines conditioned by whites-only ran SARB. The kit of bottle green jerseys and gold collar, green blazer with gold piping a Springbok emblem on breast pocket was made for the South African national rugby union team. This racist monopolisation of rugby was enforced through laws.
The monopolisation was further demonstrated in 1959, the whites-only SARB decided to start copywriting of Springbok emblem and its colours to prohibit other sporting bodies from copywriting it. With the racist contradictions of racialising rugby, the very SARB proclaimed that it open and glad to share Springbok colours, however, conditional to that it is shared strictly with whites-only juvenile sporting to represent and representing South Africa on a global scale. Further-so, in 1971, legislation was codified and enforced by the Apartheid government that only white people in South Africa are granted access to Springbok colours and to further prohibit black sporting people in rugby from using it on a national level despite having excluded them from the mainstream national team that is internationally recognised. The very legislations extended beyond rugby arena, during the 1969, a Coloured Glen Popham was denied his Springbok symbols despite having successfully won gold medal alongside his team in Karate. The apparent lame rationale for this as accounted by South African National Olympic Committee (SANOC) was their oblivion prior to the game.
Consequently, given the intensity of racial segregations that prevented people of colour from representing the national teams and where slightly possible as was the case with Glen Popham must be without Springbok symbols, the entire symbolism of Springbok can and should be viewed as something emblematic of white supremacy of Apartheid.
Continued Racist Springbok Symbolism in Post-Apartheid
After the 1993 negotiated CODESA settlement and the subsequent elections of Nelson Mandela as the President of the democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela, an icon of reconciliation and unity, recognized the power of sports to bridge racial divides. During his presidency, in any sporting public platform including his attendance of the 1996 victory of the rugby national team, he always emphasised the special importance of rugby to promote national cohesion. However, the South African Rugby Union insisted on Springbok symbols remaining with rugby as the only national sporting body as an act of conciliation with white minority who historically had racialised rugby to whites-only sport. It is no known fact that Nelson Mandela grasped the special importance of sports as a uniting force, especially in colonies.
With the call for decolonisation, that explicitly inclusive of the eradication of apartheid and colonial symbols, which South Africa has seen and rectified in some instances as reflected, for instance, through the 2014 events of #RhodesMustFall at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that called for removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from public space owing to his degrading and oppressive historical acts he committed and ideas he represented, and the 2016 events of #AfrikaansMustFall at the University of Pretoria (UP) that demanded the abolishment of Afrikaans at UP given that it is a language that represent the learning and teaching culture of the former apartheid oppressor. The two events within higher education space demonstrated an important and historic confrontation of racism that is embodied in symbolism that carries historical pain of Black people in their own land of birth. Likewise, the Springbok symbols have historical connotations of racist exclusions of colour and this calls for an immediate intervention before it undermines some of the demands and efforts of decolonisation.
* Rendani Nematswerani is former Secretary General of the EFF Student Command.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.