Colouring in the All Blacks  

Why would a group of black, mostly coloured, South African rugby supporters openly root for New Zealand teams over their own.

A line-out during the Stormers vs Crusaders match at Newlands. Image credit Adrian Bischoff via Flickr.

In a few weeks, The Stormers, one of the more popular South African rugby franchises in the Super Rugby championship, kicks off their 2018 campaign at Newlands, the team’s leafy grounds in the suburbs of Cape Town. The Super Rugby championship in its current iteration involves the top 13 teams from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, with one each from Argentina and Japan. Most local supporters back their local teams, but anyone in the stadium watching The Stormers might not help to notice the incongruity of a vocal group of local fans in the stands whose allegiance will be not to the home team. Rather than attired in the blue and white hooped “streeptruie” (striped) jerseys that representative rugby teams from Cape Town have worn for over a century, they will be there to cheer on the Canterbury Crusaders from New Zealand.

Known as the Cape Crusaders, these fans also happen to be mostly Coloured, which is why they baffle people so. But given the history of rugby in South Africa, and particularly in the Western Cape, the incongruity has a clear logic. The Cape Crusaders don’t confine their activities to New Zealand provincial sides alone. They have also been known to rapturously welcome the New Zealand All Black national team.

So offended was Bryan Habana, one of the outstanding Black players of the post-Apartheid era (he jointly holds the record for most tries scored in test rugby and was voted the world’s best player in 2007), by their behavior in 2013 – when he was still playing for the Stormers – that he tweeted: “I highly doubt there’s any place in the world where you get booed off your bus, at your home stadium, by your ‘fellow’ countrymen.”

From one perspective, the Cape Crusaders are an anachronism: they are employing a strategy of political provocation developed decades ago to bring Apartheid governments down, and which subverted the sport most cherished by Apartheid’s most ardent supporters, by rooting for the opposition. Equally, though, their allegiance to non-South African teams has contemporary relevance: close to 25 years since the establishment of non-racial sports bodies (i.e. combining the former whites only and black associations), black representation in rugby is not even close to reflecting South Africa’s demographics.

But does this provocation serve a constructive purpose in South African rugby’s long overdue transformation?

Rugby passion, political provocation

There are many reasons why these South Africans support New Zealand and the Crusanders. These include a preference for New Zealand teams’ “ball in hand” style of play or what was once derogatorily referred to as “bushie rugby,” i.e. a style favored by Coloured rugby players);  supporting a winner (the Crusaders have been Super Rugby champions eight times since the competition was established in 1996 and are the favorites to win this year’s competition), but there may be more political reasons. The heavy representation of Pacific Islanders and Maoris in franchise teams and the All Blacks make it easier to identify with those teams than with South African teams, which they still perceive to be representative of the Apartheid past. New Zealand team members appear more representative of most people in the Western Cape.

The Cape Crusader phenomenon has its roots in a longstanding tradition of a passionate embrace of the game of rugby that dates back to the end of the 19th century. The first rugby associations were established in the Cape Colony at that time. The South African Council on Sports (SACOS) — which called for a sports boycott of South Africa — with its South African Rugby Union (SARU) affiliate, founded in 1966, grew out of this. Recent Springbok coaches Peter de Villiers and Allister Coetzee — both brilliant scrumhalves in their day — played their rugby in SARU. The SARU and SACOS rejected any contact with white sports, especially the whites-only South African Rugby Board (SARB) which operated as an extension of Afrikaner nationalism. The SARU members boycotted Newlands (home of Cape Town rugby) and its segregated stands. And if a visiting team came to play tests against the Springboks, they shouted for the opposition from the Coloureds-only section.

In addition to the SARB, SARU members especially had it in for the South African Rugby Federation (SARF), a racially-based, Coloureds-only “collaborationist league,” which operated as an extension of the whites-only SARB. The Federation was the brainchild of SARB’s paternalistic president Danie ‘Doc’ Craven, a former Springbok himself. The SARU’s decision to play and organize competitive rugby on their own terms, was thus an act of political defiance.

The SARU and SACOS were also staunch proponents of a sports boycott against South Africa. Though the boycott kicked off in the early 1970s in Australia and the UK, things came to a head in 1981 in New Zealand where the Springboks went on tour. New Zealand had sent a team to South Africa in 1976 – the year of the Soweto uprising – the last by a major team there. By 1981 the sports boycott had resulted in most major test nations (the Britain, Ireland and France) reluctant to host the South Africans.

Craven reasoned that the inclusion of a Coloured Federation player, Errol Tobias, in the touring squad to New Zealand would deter calls for exclusion of the rugby Springboks from international competition. Tobias was never accepted by white conservative supporters or, with few exceptions, by his own teammates.

Tobias also proved to be somewhat politically naïve. As a result, SARU and SACOS players and supporters deemed him a collaborator and “Uncle Tom.” (Incidentally, Tobias played for the Springboks in the last IRB-sanctioned test against a visiting nation, in this case England, in 1984 before a blanket ban was instituted against the Springboks. Watching footage of that match now, it is striking to see the reaction by his team mates after Tobias scored a try against England in that test series. With few exceptions, they don’t even acknowledge him.)

By collaborating with segregated sport, Errol Tobias worked to protract Apartheid rule, not hasten its gradual demise, non-racial sports bodies held. The Springboks were met by large crowds of protesters wherever they went in New Zealand and their games were disrupted. Craven’s strategy did not succeed. Instead, the isolation of South African sports – and rugby in particular – became a powerful emotional force in bringing home for white South Africans the repercussions of sustaining Apartheid.

International opposition, domestic mobilization

Springboks teams were barred from international competition not only because the team was by definition exclusively white (with a few notable exceptions of three or four Federation players in the 1980s included in the team), but also because the South African government demanded that opposing teams, even in their home countries, field no players of color.

There was another reason: If the All Blacks included players of Maori or Polynesian descent, or if the Australian Wallabies selected the Aboriginal Ella brothers (Mark and Glen) and performed well against the Springboks, then the “natives” in South Africa might get the wrong idea of their place in the racial hierarchy. Bizarely, if the New Zealand and Australia players were willing to sign a document attesting that they were “honorary whites,” they could play in South Africa – as the Samoan-born Bryan Williams and Maori Syd Going did in the 1970s.

Unfortunately for successive Apartheid governments, this demand had in fact the opposite effect: the weak-kneed response from administrators both in Australia and New Zealand brought wider attention to their domestic issues of social injustice, and galvanized broader opposition to racism. In New Zealand, the Halt All Racist Tour movement, founded in 1969, became a national political force that helped to raise consciousness about Maori rights and racial equality and were decisive in disrupting the 1981 Springbok tour there. It may be this history of solidarity that appeals to the Cape Crusaders.

But they may also be buoyed by recent developments in New Zealand. Although New Zealand still struggles with issues of national identity, lingering poverty and social exclusion of both Maoris and Pacific Islander communities, the All Blacks team has progressively included more players of color. The impact of South Africa’s actions decades ago, has ironically helped to set in motion a greater awareness of racial inequality and a greater appreciation of indigenous culture in New Zealand. Official accounts of the evolution of the haka — the Maori challenge dance performed by the All Blacks before an international game — may be cringe-worthy, but what is clear is that the haka has become more elaborate, more faithful to the tradition and the players more invested in its symbolism.

To further understand the motivations and passions of the Cape Crusaders, though, we also have to revisit the politics of an earlier era that predates SACOS and reflects old schisms within black anti-apartheid movements, especially among Coloureds. It involves the Non-European Unity Movement, NEUM, which is by and large a footnote in the history of South African struggle politics, but one to which sports as resistance owes its heritage and to some extent lives on – even inadvertently – in the Cape Crusaders.

The unity movement: a spent force, an enduring legacy in non-racial sport

The NEUM was developed in the 1940s among teachers, university students and the intellectual elite in Cape Town’s Coloured community. It was a response to the formation of a separate “Coloured Affairs” department by a National Party gearing to implement Apartheid. The NEUM also took a more radical stance than “Congress” (as the loose coalition of political bodies affiliated with the African National Congress were referred to at the time). While the ANC affiliates – which included the South African Coloured Peoples’ Organization – focused on redistribution of resources, NEUM framed the struggle to end Apartheid as a part and parcel of the fight for destruction of global capitalism. The NEUM, with its roots in the Workers Party of South Africa, remained Trotskyite; by contrast, the ANC and its partners, took the Soviet line. The Unity Movement (as NEUM became known) gradually faded from the national landscape, with official disbandment in 1959, to the obvious glee of rivals in the Congress movement.

But even as the Unity Movement itself faded away, many of the principles and its supporters channeled their efforts into building non-racial sporting bodies, including figures such as Dennis Brutus, who would lead the sports boycott movement against Apartheid South Africa. Other Unity Movement figures (Frank van der Horst, Hassan Howa), would go onto lead SACOS and its many sporting affiliates. National political figures such as Trevor Manuel, Cheryl Carolus and Danny Jordaan, cut their teeth in SACOS affiliates as officials, administrators and players in non-racial sporting bodies. (Manuel, you may remember, while Finance Minister under Mandela, famously said he supported the All Blacks over the Springboks because the national team selectors in 1996 played Henry Tromp, who had been convicted of manslaughter for beating a black farm worker to death.)

But as the political climate shifted, and the South African regime began to consider a negotiated settlement to the end of Apartheid, SACOS was outflanked by the National Sports Council (NSC), led by ANC politicians (many of whom happened to hail from black rugby’s other heartland – the Eastern Cape and included Steve Tshwete, Ncgconde Balfour and the Rev Arnold Stofile). By portraying SACOS as ineffective and dogmatic, and working toward dictating the terms of sporting unity – such as shutting down the Mike Gatting-led England “rebel” cricket tour –  the NSC won popular support as the champion of non-racial sports and altered material conditions before SACOS officials could mount an effective response.

The writing was already on the wall for SACOS when Doc Craven and the Trumpian figure of Louis Luyt defied the government and met with ANC officials in 1988 (some 18 months before Nelson Mandela was released from prison) to discuss a unified rugby body. FW De Klerk, later State President, but then still Education Minister, responded to news of the meeting thus: “I must warn sportsmen that they should not allow themselves to be abused by the ANC with a view to advancing its objectives.”

The argument for the Cape Crusaders

As self-appointed custodians of the spirit of non-racial rugby, the Cape Crusaders have plenty of room to argue that there was never a sincere commitment to transformation by the rugby establishment. There was never a real reckoning of the toll of Apartheid on rugby talent or a real understanding of the systemic inequity that still stands in the way of players reaching their potential if they can’t make it to a private school, or prestigious (formerly white) public school.

Although unity in 1992 between the establishment SARB and the non-racial SARU, which confusingly resulted in the current governing body being called SARU, was predicated on the loosely defined commitment to “transformation,” the immediate aftermath was devastation for non-racial rugby. The economic legacy of Apartheid (including disinvestment in black sport), the absence of sponsorship and the timing of unification at a point when rugby as a sport moved from a nominally amateur to a fully professional model, meant that few former SACOS clubs were in a position to remain competitive. While politicians focused on representation at the highest level of the game, investment and attention to building grassroots youth rugby, resources and training were low priorities for the new SARU administrators.

Non-racial clubs and unions that had persevered for decades folded in a matter of a few years, or merged with others to survive (such as Tygerberg in the Western Cape, Raiders in Johannesburg and Progress in the Eastern Cape). Certainly, some have held on in the traditional black rugby heartlands of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, and have started to recover and attract new players over the course of the last few years. Still, of the 20 clubs competing in the SARU Gold Cup, designed explicitly to cultivate community rugby, roughly one-third have roots in non-racial rugby.

Some 22 years after formal unification, SARU was still required to formulate what it calls the Strategic Performance Plan, with the objective to improve representation of black players at all levels. Allocated a budget of R32 million in 2016 (compared with overall operating expenses of R1.2 billion and 18 million for the office of the SARU CEO), the initiative is both admirable, but also an admission that the body has never lived up to its end of the bargain it made to re-enter international competition.

There’s also plenty of evidence that white South African rugby supporters still need convincing that players of color can be selected on merit, not just by the quota system. Until fairly recently that included the Springbok coach, Heyneke Meyer, who largely lost his position because, in a charitable assessment of his motivations, he failed to make transformation a meaningful part of his approach. Instead, his teams were known by many as the All Whites.

Some white rugby supporters and writers blame South Africa’s steady decline in the world rankings to the “distraction” of transformation and its related quota system. It is probably more accurate to blame the financial enticements of playing overseas, and the weak and ineffectual administration that has failed to come to terms with the professionalization of the sport across the globe, or to make long-term investments in training, expertise and facilities.

The latest episode is the recent sacking of Coetzee under acrimonious circumstances. In a leaked letter written to the South African Rugby Board, Coetzee alleged that:

A strategy was developed to use me as a Coloured person to conceal the end goal – by offering me the job as Bok coach – but to not equip me with the necessary resources to adequately perform my tasks. It would lead to me vacating my position earlier in order for Rassie [Erasmus, the interim coach [who happens to be white] to eventually be appointed.

The case against the Cape Crusaders

In the immediate aftermath of Coetzee’s fraught tenure and acrimonious departure from the Springbok coaching job (after his spectacular success with, ironically, The Stormers), it’s difficult not to find justification for the Cape Crusaders’ rationale. In fact, for the Cape Crusaders the treatment of Coetzee was further evidence of why they don’t support South African teams.

In the 1950s, the Unity Movement’s ANC critics accused it of “the use of the most militant language as a smoke-screen for complete political in-activity.” Some claim the Cape Crusaders suffer from the same condition.

There is plenty of work to be done in righting the wrongs of Apartheid, and plenty of potential to cultivate rugby talent, but supporting the Canterbury Crusaders and the All Blacks just doesn’t seem to be the most effective way to do so. More effective would be to leverage high performance players to change perceptions, and for competitive representative teams to reflect non-racial rugby’s legacy.

Truthfully, there may have been times when clubs and rugby administrators acted more in line with the Federation’s motto of “take what we can to get what we want” when in the earlier years of formal unity, SARU played favorites in strategically investing in clubhouses and facilities to keep dissent to a minimum. Also, it’s glaringly obvious that South Africans continue to live in an abnormal society, and by implication that normal sport is still a mirage.

Also, as courageous as the fight to subvert rugby was in the context of political repression, it was imperfect. In the non-racial rugby world – or at least my experience of it as part of a university team playing in a non-racial league in the early 1990s – divisions persisted between Coloureds and Africans, with teams reflecting the residential and social segregation resulting from Apartheid’s divide and rule policies.

In the Coloured community itself, teams were largely Muslim or Christian, reflected social class which neatly coincided with divisions between English or Afrikaans-speakers; the latter seen as lower class. The divisions between SARU and Federation teams were also impacted by rural and urban divides. The opposition of the Cape Crusaders is built on that tradition and incorporates its flaws.

Provocation with a Purpose?

Maintaining the tradition of resistance is not just an admirable, but also a deeply personal one. However, the support for the All Blacks and Crusaders is a symbolic but empty gesture, if it’s only serving as an act of provocation.

There are signs of hope, not least the success of the Blitzbokke Sevens team. It has none of the freighted baggage of the 15-man game and has managed to operate outside of the more conservative structure of SA Rugby (if still referred to paternalistically as a team with more “diverse backgrounds”). And, along with the revival of community rugby in the form of the Gold Cup, changes in the representation at the school level are steps in the right direction to transform Springbok rugby. So too the attitude of new SARU president Mark Alexander, who played his rugby at the Bill Jardine Stadium in Johannesburg’s Coloured township of Coronationville.

Do the Cape Crusaders have a legitimate set of grievances? Are they keeping alive a unique tradition of political resistance? Is there intent to change perceptions? Yes, but supporting the All Blacks does not alter material conditions, or advance the debate for many who continue to be ambivalent at best about supporting the Springboks. It’s South African Rugby that needs the support to change, not the Crusaders.

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.