Peter Alegi
Guest Editor
Michigan State University

2010 is a historic year for African sport. It is the year of Africa’s first FIFA World Cup, which kicks off on June 11 as hosts South Africa take on Mexico at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium.  World Cup soccer aside, South African sport has recently been in the mainstream of global culture thanks to Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus, a Hollywood account of how the South African Springboks’ memorable victory on home soil in the 1995 rugby World Cup persuaded rugby-obsessed conservative whites to accept, if not embrace, democracy and Nelson Mandela’s “new South Africa.”[1] So it is fitting for IMPUMELELO to devote the first issue of 2010 to the history of South African sport, with a specific focus on rugby, race and racism, nationhood, and migration during and after apartheid era.

In the first article, Hendrik Snyders tells the largely unknown stories of a number of black players (classified as “African” and “Coloured” by the Population Registration Act of 1950) who left apartheid South Africa in the 1960s and 1970 to play Rugby League professionally in England. Building on the emerging literature produced in and out of the academy, Snyder’s research inserts the struggles and achievements of African and Coloured rugby players into the historical record of a sport usually associated with white power, culture, and identity. By chronicling the overseas careers of Goolam Abed, Enslin Dlambulo, Andile Pikoli, David Barends, Green Vigo, and others Snyders demonstrates how racism and inequality in South Africa stunted the organic development of an inclusive rugby culture in the country and instead fostered the construction of a racially exclusive national rugby identity.

Despite South Africa’s impressive gains since the birth of democracy in 1994, divisions and tensions are still evident in rugby as in society at large. Derek Catsam’s article picks up chronologically and thematically where Snyders’s ends. Catsam discusses how South African rugby endured as a cultural space for the playing out of ideas about nationhood and race.  The politicization of rugby in South Africa, Catsam points out, predates the euphoria and triumphalism of the 1995 rugby World Cup. Crucially, the white-dominated South African Rugby Board fought to maintain white power and privilege at home and preserve international rugby ties, particularly with Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. However, establishment rugby was vigorously challenged by the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, based in London since 1966, and by the South African Council on Sport formed inside the country in 1973.  The post-1994 African National Congress-led government, Catsam argues, pursued a policy of “transformation” to make elite rugby more representative of the South African population in the boardroom and on the playing field, a process which has had uneven results despite some hopeful signs of change.

Taken together, the studies by Snyders and Catsam underscore how one of the necessary preconditions for meaningful and long-lasting transformation in South African rugby is to record the game’s history accurately and comprehensively. Reconstructing the past can help change individual attitudes and social (mis)perceptions, and create new common ground in a divided society. But this effort requires money and time to conduct archival research and extensive oral history interviewing, especially among black athletes whose history is poorly represented in written documents.  The accomplishments of sport historians like Snyders and Catsam point to another important role played by engaged academics: improving understanding of sport among the broader public by explaining how political, economic, social, and cultural factors, over time, have shaped the world of sport we see today.

As Snyders’s case study of black rugby migrants in England and Catsam’s essay on the cultural politics of postapartheid rugby suggest, the game has both empowered and disempowered people, communities, institutions, and movements. These authors reveal that race and national identity have influenced, and have been influenced by, South African rugby and society, in surprising and even contradictory ways. We could add gender and capitalism as additional categories of analysis to those of race and nation in analyzing aspects of rugby’s past and present in South Africa.

Surely, it is crucial that rugby was and is a sport played, coached, and run by men.  How does the use of men’s bodies instead of female bodies influence the imagining of the South African “nation”?  In a related question, we might ask what roles do women play in the aggressively masculine arena of the rugby ground, either as spectators or as supporters of male relatives and friends? On the economic side, it is also useful to consider how rugby, much like soccer and cricket, has been completely changed by the television revolution of the 1990s. How has the infusion of huge amounts of money into rugby by satellite and pay-tv providers for the broadcasting rights to the Super 14, the Currie Cup, and even the inter-collegiate Varsity Cup, affected the politics of race in South African rugby? Does nationalism in the Jacob Zuma era still hold the purchase it did during Mandela’s presidency? While the earning potential of elite white and black players has reached unprecedented heights, what has been the impact of television money at the grassroots, especially in black townships and rural villages?

The articles in this issue of IMPUMELELO alert us to the deeply rooted and multifaceted nature of the challenges facing South African rugby and indeed sport overall.  Nearly two decades after apartheid’s demise, rugby facilities in black areas are woeful, coaches’ training almost non-existent, and youth development left to episodic corporate social responsibility initiatives, a few NGOs, or a passionate but under-resourced individual from the community.  Academic knowledge of the country’s tumultuous sporting history is of vital significance to the ongoing democratization of South African history and culture. Historical research is also valuable for the guidance it can provide practitioners, policymakers, and funders as they struggle to devise sustainable sport development programs over the long term that address the painful legacies of apartheid and the bold new challenges of globalization.

1 Eastwood’s film was based on the book by John Carlin, Playing the Enemy (New York: Penguin, 2008)l it starred Matt Damon as François Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, and Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *