The 2023 Rugby World Cup is encapsulated by the iconic image of Cheslin Kolbe, anxiously covering his face during those nerve-wracking final minutes when South Africa’s Springboks desperately hung on to a precarious 12-11 lead against their arch-rivals, New Zealand. It was a familiar tale for this team during this tournament: another hard-fought victory, another grudge match settled by the slimmest of margins.
In those tense moments, there is a wave of despair that braces for the worst. Every heartbeat feels like an eternity. But then, at last, the final whistle blows, and the jubilant sigh of relief sweeps over the nation. That image resonates deeply with South Africa and it is not confined to the limits of rugby. It symbolizes the rollercoaster of emotions that South Africans experience daily.
After captain Siya Kolisi raised the trophy in celebration (the first to lift the trophy twice, and doing so as the team’s first black captain); like a pack of matted feathered vultures circling around the same decaying and fetid talking point, it didn’t take long for the contrarians to remind everyone that South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup won’t bring material change for anyone, particularly for the poor and working class. Nor did it take long for Eskom to resume plunging the country back into darkness.
It was back to the same old frustrating cycle for South Africans.
But for those fleeting two months and change, South Africans basked in the warmth of an emotion they’d been denied by the relentless social and political realities. The country became re-acquainted with its long-lost friend called hope.
South Africa has long been characterized by its enduring hope. It was in 1994, following the historic elections, that the nation first glimpsed the glimmer of hope on the horizon. That year marked the transition from a dark period of brutal apartheid rule to the dawn of a democratic era, making South Africa one of the last countries on the African continent to shed the shackles of colonialism.
However, hope was accompanied by a palpable tension in the air. As coups and political turmoil rocked other African nations, it was almost as if South Africa’s fate had already been scripted. The future was uncertain, but there was an imagination of what it could be. That’s when the marriage between the concept of the Rainbow Nation with the political framework was born.
Nelson Mandela recognized the power of sport in captivating hearts and minds. He harnessed this power to pitch the idea of the Rainbow Nation, where people of all backgrounds could unite under the banner of a diverse and inclusive South Africa.
However, the 1995 Rugby World Cup, despite its significance, was marred by a disheartening truth: it represented the old guard. The team that clinched victory was predominantly composed of white men, with the late Chester Williams being the exception. The captain and coaching staff were also white.
So, while it was a victory, it was one that excluded the majority of South Africans. If anything, the triumph had been achieved on white people’s terms and territory, and everyone else was merely a guest in the celebration. It truly illustrated that rugby could stand as a symbol of unity but also a battleground for race politics in South Africa.
This ironic dynamic would be exemplified by the team that would win the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France. In the lead-up to that tournament, tensions were exacerbated by then-coach Jake White, who attributed the team’s poor form to transformation policies. This statement carried with it an unsettling subtext, highlighting the contentious implications of the issue.
Then came Peter De Villiers. As the first coach of color, he symbolized a commitment to transformation, yet his tenure was far from a smooth ride. It served as a vivid illustration of the issues that had taken root within the house of change.
The team found itself embroiled in conflicts, complete with colorful press conferences and controversies. Discord simmered in the locker room as well as in the offices of SA Rugby, creating a chaotic environment. To add fuel to the fire, during the World Cup held in France, the sight of fans in the stadium displaying the old apartheid flag served as a disheartening reminder of the stagnating progress.
The team’s performance on the field yielded mixed results, but the noise and turmoil drowned out the significance of their achievement, underscoring the complicated, layered nature of South African rugby’s journey toward transformation.
Cue the charismatic Rassie Erasmus. Smart enough not to emulate his predecessors, he established himself as a guardian of transformation with the historic appointment of Siya Kolisi as the team’s first black captain. The squad also consisted of young players mixed with veterans that better reflected the diversity of the country.
But even with the drastic makeover, the team wouldn’t completely rid itself of controversy. During the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, accusations were raised against Eben Etzebeth, alleging racist abuse against a homeless man. The forward vehemently denied the claim, but the South African Human Rights Commission announced its intention to initiate legal proceedings against him just before kick-off against Italy.
After the game, the controversies persisted when a video that went viral on social media showed Makazole Mapimpi being left out in a post-celebration huddle. While both Mapimpi and Erasmus clarified that nothing untoward had occurred, the visual impact was powerful, and the impression proved irreversible.
What sets this World Cup victory apart from all the others is the absence of the suffocating weight of politics and disputes that plagued past tournaments. Instead, the team appears remarkably unified and they leaned into the fun. At the heart of this is the endearing figure of Erasmus. He brought a completely different approach to the game and a light-hearted and relaxed social media presence (a special nod to his dog Frenkie). His public persona has earned him the trust of Black South Africans and he avoids the historical baggage of distrust toward Afrikaners. He has set the tone for the team to follow.
This is refreshing considering two instances in this World Cup that could have easily given rise to fueled divisive debates or disrupted the team’s momentum. For example, the “Wit Kant” saga with Bongi Mbonambi could have been a sour point, but it showed how the team stood together regardless of the storm that England tried to brew. The change in the line-up between Mannie Libbok and Handre Pollard, particularly in the lead-up to the final matchup, could have sparked negative discourse. But since the team’s mantra revolves around prioritizing what is best for the team, the decision was accepted without opposition.
What truly makes this team exceptional is its diversity. It thrives because these players work together, in a harmony that extends beyond the field. The team’s personality and sense of fun is palpable for both fans and those who might be new to the sport. There’s the fanfare around Etzebeth, now affectionately nicknamed “Elizabedi.” And Faf De Klerk who has become a darling to fans not only because of his small stature and big heart but for his playful and patriotic spirit (wearing his South African flag underwear and taking a picture with tennis legend Roger Federer), which led to many imitations by fans. There was also a supercut of Tik Tok videos showing Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber passionately motivating the team with phrases like “f**k them up,” and let’s not forget NFL great Tom Brady’s incredibly inspiring message that made the rounds online.
Amid all these fun moments, the team embraced the gwijo culture (a Xhosa style of acapella, call and response singing), with white and Coloured players joining the practice. The reincarnation of Mandoza’s “Nkalakatha” as the victory anthem also highlighted the uniquely South African character of the experience.
In the current sociopolitical climate in South Africa, this World Cup win has offered a fleeting sense of unity and hope. SA Rugby has managed to steer clear of the corruption scandals that have plagued cricket and soccer. The team has consistently set and raised the bar. And as the country prepares for the upcoming elections, there have already been attempts from members of political parties to harness the goodwill for their own political agendas but that has been met with resistance because South Africans understand that the standard of excellence in rugby is absent across the political landscape.
This World Cup victory provided a space for people to congregate and feel, even temporarily, a sense of pride in being South African. It will not change the harsh, day-to-day realities, but it offered a very welcome reprieve from them.