Rugby and rainbows
Reflecting on white joy, black celebration, and the meaning of the Springbok win at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
News24 is one of South Africa’s largest media outlets and Adriaan Basson is its editor. Because of its size and reach, News24 is an important site for shaping public opinion in South Africa. As a result, when Basson shares his opinion, many people listen.
My sense of Basson is that he is a good man with good intentions and he wears these intentions on his sleeve when he writes about the Rainbow Nation. This sleeve-wearing and rainbow-writing happens fairly frequently because Basson believes that black and white South Africans ought to be able to live together without acrimony. I am more comfortable than Basson seems to be with the inevitable conflict that comes with living in a multiracial society forged in the shadows of apartheid. Still, Basson and I share the same social instinct: we reach for cohesion rather than pull against it. Despite this, our political analyses are often wildly different.
There are some people in our country who believe journalists are the enemy. There is an army of online bots that have been programmed to insist that Basson himself is a serious enemy of black people. He is particularly targeted by members of the ruling ANC and opposition party EFF. Whenever he points out the moral failings of their leaders, particularly in relation to corruption, he is especially and virulently targeted. But the idea of Basson as an enemy is nonsense. I disagree with Basson in this case—and indeed I often do—but he is not my enemy. The very notion of enemies in a democratic system—rather than competitors or interlocutors—is strange to me. When used in service of genuine clarification, rather than point-scoring, disagreement can be useful rather than polarizing.
If you haven’t noticed, South Africa won its third Rugby World Cup last Saturday. The win was remarkable for a number of reasons, not least was that for the first time in its history the team was captained by a black player, Siya Kolisi. From the Eastern Cape, Kolisi seems particularly aware of his role in history. His post match comments, in which he spoke of the class and racial inequalities in South Africa, is already the stuff of legend. Strikingly also, has been how black South Africans have responded to the win. In previous World Cups, many black South Africans have been ambivalent about whether or not to openly support the team. This time there was no question—the team had no shortage of fans.
Rugby culture in South Africa has been stubbornly resistant to change. But the usual crowd shots of all-white South African crowds at rugby matches—sometimes waving the old Apartheid flag—are becoming a thing of the past. It is precisely for this reason that Kolisi’s captaincy and the presence of a number of other black players in key positions has been so important.
As the historian and rugby fan, Derek Catsam, wrote on this site on Monday, “…This was no ‘quota squad,’ … but rather it was a squad led by its black players.” It was a squad that would not have been able to “win the World Cup without those black players.” Whites are not at the center of the game anymore and so there is a qualitative shift at play in South African rugby. This is what the homecoming scenes of the boys arriving from Tokyo symbolize. This is what the excitement amongst black people is about.
In this spirit then, let me address my concerns about a recent piece in which Basson writes about the Springboks’ brilliant World Cup win. It seems to me that at its core, the piece misses many of the points that critics of the Rainbow Nation (and of the function of rugby and the Springboks for that vision) have been making for many years. This misunderstanding sets us up for further, deeper misunderstandings that can be exploited over time until they drive people of good will further and further apart.
Basson writes: “The Springboks have revived the much-maligned concept of South Africa as a rainbow nation with a historic Rugby World Cup championship victory.” He goes on to argue that the Rainbow Nation, “has been given a second chance by Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, coach Rassie Erasmus and the team, who emphasised one nation working together after its stunning win over England.”
This is simply not the case.
Try as he might, Basson seems unable to genuinely understand that the problem at the core of the idea of the Rainbow Nation lies in the way it centers the experiences and feelings of white people. This—more than anything else—makes it a hard concept to reuse in this millennium, given all we know about white supremacy and late capitalism.
Each and every day, South Africans are offered opportunities to work together across race and across class lines, even as many white people in this country, who have the power to work towards unity, choose to turn away from the national project.
Basson’s sentimentality—his idea that our nationhood will be made in moments of glamour in which white people play a central role—is seductive. And yet, if the last twenty-five years has taught us anything, it is that a captain and a coach can make us weep, but a rugby match cannot give us a second chance at nationhood.
Day after day, year after year in the news cycle that Basson curates, it is evident that the events that tend to move black South Africans, do not on the whole, move white South Africans. Basson’s idea of the rugby match as a second chance functions as a softcore racial imaginarium in which white people’s inclusion is a prerequisite for unity.
If the team had no white members, would the win have meant this much to our white compatriots? This question gets to the heart of what it means to be South African. For white South Africans it means inclusion (even if they are already over-represented) while for black South Africans belonging means justice and equity—it means seeing a group of young men on the field who are there in spite of every obstacle thrown in their paths.
I remember the heady days of the #FeesMustFall movement. While many white South Africans supported the students in broad terms, there was no mass outpouring from white South Africans claiming that all those black children on the streets provided a glimpse of the country South Africa’s liberators had hoped it might become. Instead, there were a number of self-satisfied opinion pieces pointing out that white children were on the streets too, but far too few white South Africans claiming the struggles of black children as their own.
The almost pathological need to place white people at the center of the national narrative about the future is a blind spot for many well-meaning white people. For too many of our white compatriots, the South African story is built around the fate of white people. This inability to see the future without insisting that the photo frame includes white images represents a strange sort of race-consciousness for a group that often professes not to care about race. The stories that count are their stories even though it is widely accepted at an intellectual level that for South Africa to thrive socially and economically, it is black people who will need to make significant progress.
In spite of the objective facts about what constitutes progress for this country, the desire of so many white people to celebrate stories in which white people play a central role while ignoring the national importance of stories in which black children are the focus, should worry all of us.
The point is not that white people shouldn’t also thrive, but that the idea of nationhood should not be contingent on white people continuing to take up disproportionate space within the national story.
I remain committed to the idea that South Africa can be a place of opportunity and justice for all of us. Yet I cannot see how we will achieve this objective is our white compatriots do not rejoice with all their hearts when black children are uplifted.
The Springbok win is great but it is hard, hard indeed, to watch the frenzy of white excitement about it. It is painfully clear that there would not be such joy if rugby were not seen as a “white” sport. Indeed, Basson’s article begs the question of why it takes a rugby match to spur a reclamation of nation-building when all around us each and every day South African whites who have every opportunity to promote unity in private lives flatly refuse to do so.
If the dream of a united South Africa is truly important then white South African managers will hire young black talent without reservation, without resentment or anger about affirmative action. They will see in the faces of young black graduates a second chance rather than a last resort. If the dream of a united South Africa in which each of us can live to our fullest potential is to be realized then the middle class—white and black—will put their children back in public schools. The segregated suburban schools that have been abandoned by whites stand as a testament to how far we have to go to move beyond the seduction of the glittering moment.
Perhaps this summer, white South Africans who want to keep the idea of racial equality alive will celebrate when the beaches are bursting with black people who are free—wonderfully free!—to bathe and swim and share in the beauty of our country’s coastlines. Perhaps they will remember that once upon a time black people were not allowed on our own shores.
While lying in the sun alongside their fellow South Africans who happen to be black, our white compatriots will be able appreciate that very quietly and without much fuss, day after day, month after month for the last twenty-five years, they have accumulated an extraordinary set of second chances. Perhaps this summer they will re-dedicate themselves not to certain colors in the rainbow but to the vision itself.