In March, I was assigned to the Four Nations Challenge, a basketball tournament at the Wembley Sports Arena, Johannesburg, South Africa. Winter had started early, so I wore my favorite Springbok rugby jacket. Back home, in the Eastern Cape, we wore scarves and jackets to rugby stadiums on rainy winter days. Rugby is in our blood. I passed my first rugby ball at the age of five.
At the Wembley Arena, I met Carey Odhiambo, the coach of Kenya’s basketball team. Odhiambo liked my green and gold jacket; he spoke of Springbok success and doing Africa proud. At the time, South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks, were ranked second in the world , but are now fifth – an all-time low.
My acquaintance from East Africa, where rugby is still amateur, couldn’t care less about how many black and white players were in the team, until I raised the point. The Springboks are a far cry from representing the demographics of our population. But, Odhiambo didn’t mind, as long as the team was winning. Interestingly, Odhiambo’s basketball team was the antithesis of the Springboks: all his players were black. On the other hand, the Boks seem like a European team dotted with one or two African expatriates.
Odhiambo was unaware that millions of blacks, like me, reluctantly support the Springboks because of this. But we smoked a peace pipe and exchanged jackets. Would that happen with a white South African compatriot?
South Africa has suffered from 500 years of colonialism, and apartheid, where opportunities were governed by racial privilege. Because of this history, almost everything in South Africa is a racial issue.
Let’s touch on where the Nelson Mandela Rainbow Nation farce began. In 1995, a year after the country’s first democratic elections, South Africa hosted its first Rugby World Cup and won it. On the day of the final, blacks and whites were behind the Springboks, that was all white save for one player, Chester Williams. We won the World Cup and hoped that talent from the townships would be nurtured.
A year after the World Cup, a new and unapologetically racist coach, Andre Markgraaff, was appointed and went on to win eight and lose five test matches before resigning. Markgraaff was taped referring to black rugby officials as kaffirs, a gaffe he profusely apologized for. He did not select a single black player in his year as coach. In 1997, an inexperienced Carel du Plessis took over. Of his eight matches, Du Plessis won three. Not a single black player was involved in that mediocre record, resulting in Du Plessis getting the boot.
It took a third coach, Nick Mallet, to at least select six black players in three years. Mallet, who took the team to the World Cup in 1999, won 27 and lost 11; between 1997 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2003, little happened under Harry Viljoen and Rudolph Straeuli.
The Springboks won a second World Cup under Jake White in 2007. Under White, they won 36 of their 54 matches and 23 black players were selected in four years. The transformation work done by White, and his successor Peter de Villiers, who saw 21 black players earning Bok caps between 2008 and 2011, was commendable. Sadly, the incumbent Heyneke Meyer is undoing this.
Meyer has been the coach since 2012 and is in charge of the Springboks at the World Cup in England this year. It’s not guaranteed he will win, or even reach the quarterfinals, at the World Cup based on the recent lacklustre performances. In the five games leading up to the World Cup, Meyer lost to Argentina for the first time in the country’s history in August. The team’s world ranking is its lowest since 1996.
Meyer is spoilt for choice when it comes to talented black players. Yet he chose to overlook them and picked white players who are older than 30 instead.
A case in point is Jean de Villiers, the captain who has served the Springboks well since 2012. But, the 34-year-old center is laden with injuries and has lost his pace. Meyer’s patience with De Villiers cannot be justified on the grounds that there’s a dearth of capable centers. This is one in the eye for the 26-year-old utility back, Lionel Mapoe, from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, who had a brilliant Super Rugby tournament with the Golden Lions. Despite coming through the ranks, he has played only one test, against New Zealand, in July.
Elton Jantjies is another case. He has played twice for Springboks and was the best South African flyhalf in Super Rugby. His sin is being black. Meyer has shown no interest in picking him, instead favoring the white players, Pat Lambie and Handre Pollard. Statistically, Jantjies had a better Super Rugby than them.
The South African Rugby Union (Saru), the toothless governing body, and the sport ministry, has given Meyer so much carte blanche that he thinks he is doing the right thing.
To rub salt into the wound, Saru has extended the deadline for transformation. Saru’s target for 2019 is for a 50% white, 30% black and 20% colored representation of Springboks and domestic Currie Cup teams.
Kaya Malotana, selected by Mallett in 1999, was the first black African Springbok. The 38-year-old director of coaching at Alberton Rugby Club, near Johannesburg, bemoans a lack of will. The Eastern Cape winger, from the small town of Lady Frere, earned one cap for the Springboks.
“The problem with doing things when under pressure is that you set unrealistic targets. Fifty percent black and colored representation is setting everybody up for failure because not enough players of color are being selected in Super Rugby. People will turn around and say, ‘these black players have compromised the quality of the Springbok team,’” says Malotana.
I want to demystify the notion that people who question transformation in South African rugby are not supporters. This is not true. During the World Cup, black people will put their differences aside and don their green and gold regalia and support the Springboks. Dee