Why, despite it all, I’m still a fan of the Springboks

We should not let the achievements of a multiracial Springbok rugby team, led by its first black captain, be commodified and commercialized in the service of neoliberalism.

Youtube screenshot of post match interview by Springbok captain, Siya Kolisi.

The Springboks are world champions again after their 32-12 pummeling of England in the final of the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Team captain Siya Kolisi’s post game interview has gone viral, capturing the ideals of the Rainbow Nation; an ideal that has been discredited more recently. Kolisi reminded the world of South Africa’s race and class divides: “I never dreamed of a day like this at all. When I was a kid all I was thinking about was getting my next meal.” He later added:

That’s what we wanted to do today and we really appreciate all the support, people in the taverns, people in the shebeens, people in farms and homeless people that had screens and people in rural areas. Thank you so much, we appreciate all the support. We love you South Africa and we can achieve anything if we work together as one.

Similarly, Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus has been praised for having said all the right things in his post-match press conference. The videos of the most interracial team in Bok history have spread far and wide. Even the most cynical journalists are talking and writing about harmony and hope and inspiration and that most South African of words, “transformation.” (Large sections of South Africa’s rugby press are cynical about changing the game’s white face on and off the field.)

By the time the Springbok party lands at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, the victory, Kolisi’s inspirational words, Erasmus’ acknowledgment of things beyond rugby, the clips of black and white players dancing—these will all be commodified and commercialized, neoliberalism being the true force beyond rugby. The 2019 Springboks will be used to sell beer and mobile phones, satellite TV, and sports drinks. Above all, they will be used to sell “Transformation ™.” Lock Eben Etzebeth’s missteps (he is accused of racially abusing a coloured man back in Langebaan, South Africa), the mysteries of potential exclusion of black players surrounding the “Bomb Squad” (when an exclusive group of white Springboks celebrated separately on the field), and the realities of South African lives in Kolisi’s hometown of Zwide in the Eastern Cape province—these will be swept away, out of view, at least for now, as those with the best of intentions but dubious perspective insist that the 2019 Springboks have changed things, have had an impact, have shown what South Africans can only do if they all just come together as one. It will be the 1995 Springboks 2.0. “Siya’s Spell meets Madiba Magic.”

And let me be clear, I too am riding the wave of euphoria. For all of Springbok Rugby’s problems, both historically and today, I was supporting this team. I have been swept up in the emotions.

Being a sports fan is always problematic. There is no moral or ethical perfection. You support the All Blacks because you supported them against South Africa during apartheid? That’s great. But you could only support them because they continued to play South Africa, offering a rare port in a storm buttressing apartheid rugby when teams like Australia had chosen disengagement. New Zealand’s South African support always had a whiff of sanctimony to it given that for the vast majority of All Black interactions with Springbok rugby prior to 1992, New Zealand was willing to sell out its own Maori players by not allowing them to tour to South Africa to play the Green and Gold until 1970 (when visiting Maori players were granted the dubious “Honorary Whites” status). There is little doubt that All Blacks supporters in South Africa developed their loyalties out of a deep sense of principle. But that principle nonetheless comes with a healthy dose of opportunism. Look into the history of the great New Zealand fullback George Nepia and ask yourself why he never did play against the Springboks. Then think again about principles, but also about opportunism. Even principles can be problematic in the context of elite sport.

If you support an elite sports team the odds are that whether you know it or not you support perpetrators of domestic violence or racists, you support homophobes or Make America Great Again chuckleheads, you support young men and women, some of whom you would not like if you met them and many of whom would look down on you with barely shielded scorn and condescension if they met you. And let us not think about the reprobates and troglodytes who populate every fan base on earth. It is a cliché, but if you support big-time sport and have chosen a side, you cheer for laundry. That laundry might be washed not far from where you live. It might get dried by people who speak your language or refer to your grilling of meat as a “braai” rather than a barbecue. It might get sponsored by Castle instead of Budweiser, MTN instead of T-Mobile. It may be the color you once wore or that your dad or mum once wore. But it’s laundry. And as professional athletes show by rightfully exercising their agency whenever possible, that laundry is interchangeable.

And yet the laundry I was supporting on Saturday was green and gold. To me it was the laundry of Beast Mtamawira and Cheslin Kolbe, of Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am, of Bongi Mbonambi and of course of the inspirational captain, Siyamthanda Kolisi, a man who, if all of the Rainbow Nation palaver even vaguely lives up to he country’s hopes and ideals and rhetoric, will earn a place more esteemed in the annals of South African sport then 1995 Springbok captain Francois Pienaar.

South African rugby is imperfect and has an appalling history. If they abandon the Springbok logo I will shed no tears and gnash no teeth. As fans we inherit the histories of the teams we support. I loathe the long history of the Springboks even as I support the current if flawed iteration. I wanted Eben Etzebeth to make crushing tackles and to earn hard meters and to play the role of enforcer because that was good for the Springboks, even if I cannot stomach what may have happened in Langebaan just a few weeks ago.

I arrived in South Africa in 1997 knowing shockingly little about rugby, and left a supporter of the only team that made sense to support, not as a historian of race and politics, where the Springboks continually fell short, but that made complete sense in the context of someone who played his first rugby match in the country, whose friends, black and white, were supporters of the Boks, and of their own local teams, and who allowed himself to get caught up in the heat of the still-glowing post-1995 embers. I supported Chester Williams but also Joost and Os, James Small, Percy Montgomery, and Mark Andrews.

In the years that followed I came to use the Springboks to make my own political statements—my favorite players were the Breyton Paulses and Bryan Habanas, the Beasts and the Ashwin Willemses, the JP Pietersens and Ricky Januaries. In sum, I most embraced the black players who stood as a counterpoint to all of those white players who never had to compete against black South Africans on the pitch, in the classroom, or in the boardroom. My peers could try to convince me how wonderful Naas Botha was. But I was far more interested in seeing a Springbok team that looked forward and not one that looked back. I knew the Boks were flawed, but from 1997 I never believed they were fatally so. My vision may have been clouded, but I was never blind.

I was willing to allow South African Rugby to clean the laundry. And so I’ve often been disappointed. But I’ve also been enthralled.

And the 2019 World Cup was enthralling. South Africa began by losing to the All Blacks in their opening Pool B match, a game they dominated for the first quarter or so but could not translate that dominance into points. Given that no team had ever won the Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship and won a World Cup, and that no team had ever lost a group match and won a World Cup, history might have seemed to have been biased against the Springboks. But, history tends to provide suggestions rather than a roadmap, and from that point on the Boks did what they needed to do. When Japan, one of the most joyful revelations of the tournament, defeated Ireland to help them secure their group, it meant that the Boks would face a rematch of the 2015 group match in Brighton in which Japan provided not only the shock of the 2015 tournament, but the shock of the history of the Rugby World Cup. Over the last few weeks, Rassie Erasmus showed a faith in the entirety of his squad, balancing selection consistency with roster experimentation and showing a willingness to go to his reserves early and often. South Africa often played a perfunctory style, choosing utilitarianism over aesthetics, but even then the traditional South African “dig-and-drive” brutalism occasionally gave way to real flair on the outside, as Mapimpi, Am, Sibu N’kosi, Damian de Allende and the rest of the backs provided the support to validate the relentless South African pack play. When England defeated the All Blacks in a shock upset many pundits installed them as tournament favorites, as if the long history of Southern Hemisphere dominance in global rugby was honest and for true not the case this time around. It is, I suppose, both charming and frustrating that Charlie Brown thinks Lucy will let him kick the football this time.

But England’s anomalous 2003 title aside, the historically superior quality of Southern Hemisphere rugby was revealed in 2019, as it was in seven of the eight tournaments that preceded it. Faster, stronger, more technically skilled, more committed, and simply better in execution, the Springboks dominated the final from the outset. Indeed the only pause many of us had was that despite an opening ten or fifteen minutes of wreaking absolute destruction onto the poor England side the Springboks did not have much on the scoreboard to show for it. But relentlessness won out, and the Springbok forward dominance provided a platform for the centers and wings to shine. The Bok defenders would not allow England to breathe, and while many of the crushing tackles came from the usual suspects, the enormous locks and the aggressive flanks and the tenacious front row, tiny Faf de Klerk and tinier Cheslin Kolbe (the Financial Times’s correspondent called him, post-final, “probably the most exciting attacking back in world rugby”) were every bit as formidable, squaring up against ball carriers seemingly twice their size. South Africa won not because of some 2019 equivalent of Madiba Magic, but rather because they were simply better. Any inspirational talk and larger symbolism is just icing on the cake.

And my joy was compounded by not only that the Springboks won, but by the fact that they did so in no small part because Tendai Mtawarira was indeed a beast in the scrums. Because Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi scored electric tries with significant contributions from Lukhanyo Am. Because Siya Kolisi led first by example before he confirmed his inspirational leadership through his pitch-perfect post-match words. That baker in Cape Town from a couple of months back who printed “Quota Squad” on a cake meant to represent the Springboks should be shamed not because of their racist idiocy, though racist idiocy it was, but because the critique has been revealed to be absurd. This was no “quota squad,” as that baker wanted to have it, but rather it was a squad led by its black players. It was a squad that does not win the World Cup without those black players. It was, in short, a squad that did great honor to that laundry I, and millions of others supported. That problematic, but at least today, triumphant laundry with its equally problematic and triumphant Springbok logo was, however, made significantly better because Siya Kolisi and his teammates were wearing it.

Further Reading