Stopped at the Try Line? Rugby, Race, and Nationalism in Post-Apartheid South Africa
Derek Charles Catsam
Perhaps the euphoria came too soon. For sure, in the heady days of 1995 the Springbok victory stood as a joyous reminder of South Africa’s potential as a nation. Rugby, a major locus of Afrikaner nationalism since the Anglo-Boer War, had served seemingly to bring together South Africans across the color barrier. The rhetoric surrounding the team’s triumph indicated that South Africans were willing to use sport as a means of bringing the country together. Additionally, sport in general has served as a microcosm of the triumphs and struggles in post-apartheid South Africa. The South African soccer team, Bafana Bafana, electrified the country in 1994 with its victory in the African Nation’s Cup, in 1996 and 1997 with its stirring qualification for the World Cup of soccer, and the fever that carried through to the World Cup competition in France in 1998. The failed Cape Town bid for the 2004 Olympics also brought millions of South Africans together in a nationalistic fervor that was rewarded when FIFA awarded the 2010 World Cup to South Africa. In the New South Africa, sports are seen as a way to turn South Africa the country into a South African nation.
Yet, if sport has served occasionally to bring South Africa together, at other times sport has proved a dividing wedge. Perhaps most commonly, sport simply has proven to be inadequate in addressing the very real problems plaguing the country. Sport can be a powerful force in society, but the hangover from apartheid has proven difficult to overcome. Crime, poverty, HIV/AIDS, unemployment, a lack of delivery of services and facilities, questions over education, corruption, and general societal transformation — these are among the issues plaguing South Africa that no number of victories in the sporting arena will conquer. Events in the past few years have shown just how inadequate rugby has been in bringing the country together, despite the wave of emotion that followed the Springboks’ thrilling 15-12 victory at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park and the similar, if comparatively muted (or at least less symbolically resonant), euphoria that surrounded the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup victory in France.
“Blacks Are Not Rugby People”: Separate Development in South African Rugby
As with most aspects of life under apartheid, sport was segregated. There were few laws referring directly to segregated sports, but pass laws, liquor laws, the Group Areas Act, and the entire apparatus of Petit Apartheid served to restrict the participation not only of blacks with whites on the same teams, but also prohibited them from playing against one another, even with segregated teams.
As with most parts of South African life, the government preached a policy of “separate development” in sport. In the first decade or more of apartheid, these policies went largely unchallenged by the global sporting community. It was not until the 1960s that outside pressure came to bear on South Africa, and it was in this period that pressure, and South African resistance to it, led to the banning of South Africa’s sporting teams from most international competitions. By 1970, this process was well under way, including the banning from the Olympic Games and the isolation from world test cricket and the cricket World Cup. As early as 1964 FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, suspended the white Football Association of South Africa (FASA), and then expelled it in 1976.
Part of the reason for the alienation of South Africa from the world stage of sport came because the National Party and its supporters would not make any real, systemic change in the apartheid system as it affected sport. Rather than allow for fully integrated competition, the government was content to tinker at the margins, hoping that window dressing would provide an acceptable substitute for an overhaul of apartheid in sport. A series of black sporting organizations emerged to begin a campaign for nonracialism. The first of these emerged in the late 1950s under the name of the South African Sports Association. This group would become SANROC, the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, while the ANC was in exile, and would be supplemented within South Africa by the South African Council on Sport (SACOS) in 1973. These groups were opposed to the separate development schemes of the government, and thus found themselves marginalized. The government would only allow sanctioned black, coloured, or Indian groups to have access to facilities and resources, and of course the sanctioned groups were subservient to the white unions for their respective sports. The plan was for the four groupings not only to compete in their own groups but also against one another as separate “nations,” a farce that the rest of the world quickly recognized and condemned.
With such condemnations came greater pressure from within, especially on the part of SACOS and black leaders, including Bishop Desmond Tutu. By the time of the Soweto Uprisings of 1976 and the aggressive protests that followed, SACOS took an increasingly hard line. The connection between sport and the rest of society became increasingly clear, both to the protesters and to the government. In no place was the connection as significant as in the schools, which was the focus of outrage in Soweto and beyond. The SACOS question became loud and clear: with each minor concession on the sporting fields, “If a black is good enough to run on a white school sports field, why can’t he sit in the same classroom as white pupils?” 
But, instead of making fundamental changes, the government continued to tinker. First, they allowed interracial play at the international level, then at the provincial level, and then at the club level. With each concession, the system itself fell under heavy scrutiny from international governments and sporting bodies. In turn, the government made more concessions, from which followed more demands. Once the government allowed for club-level mixing, SACOS demanded the integration of school sports. Although the government eventually conceded to this on a local option level, they refused the next, logical SACOS demand, which was nonracial education. It would not be until the 1990s and the emergence of Nelson Mandela from exile, ANC negotiations with the National Party, and the finalization of a multiracial, democratically elected Government of National Unity that the international sporting community recognized a transformed, or at least transforming, South Africa back onto the playing fields.
The irony was that the government easily could have reformed its sporting system in 1970 when serious international pressure first came to bear and would have avoided most of the anguish that was to follow. In the words of Peter Hain, who campaigned against apartheid in sport during the years of struggle, “the problem all along” was “that changes were made not with an honest objective of establishing truly non-racial sport, but on the basis of seeing what the government could get away with.” Ultimately, the National Party had tied sport into its apartheid nationalism, feeling that sport not only carried great symbolism of its own, but also that breaking down racial barriers in sport would serve to open the way for radical changes in the racial order away from the pitches. In essence, theirs was a nationalism that would prove to be the inverse in tone and desire that South Africans would express in the halcyon days in the wake of the World Cup victory against New Zealand’s All Blacks in 1995. It was this sort of nationalism-via-sport that SACOS had promoted all along.
Yet, even rugby was not without its dissenters. In addition to SACOS and increasing pressure from the international community, there grew to be a small but important cadre of whites from within the sport who came to speak out against the government’s deleterious policies. To be sure, many did so more out of a desire to be able to play or watch white South Africans take on their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Wales, England, France, and the other great rugby playing countries. Still others acted and spoke out of a love for the sport. And a few even spoke out for reasons of human rights.
In 1969 and 1970 the Springboks took a tour to Britain where protesters seriously disrupted their stay throughout. This led Springbok vice-captain Tommy Bedford to call for rapid changes. In the climate of the1970s, however, such pleas fell on deaf ears, even as the Springboks found themselves more and more ostracized by the rugby playing community. A similar boycott movement emerged in New Zealand in 1981 when the Springboks toured that country. Danie Craven, a legendary Springbok scrum-half and later spokesman and leader for the sport, also found the international scrutiny to be detrimental to South African sport in general and rugby in particular. Although Craven would be critical of those who played rugby in black areas and with black teams and believed they should be punished, by the late 1970s and through the 1980s, he engaged in a number of secret meetings and attempted meetings with various organizations in hopes of encouraging the government to change course. Among those who Craven had earlier condemned were the most famous dissidents against the white rugby status quo, the Watson brothers.
From the outset, the four met with constant harassment. Security Police arrested, detained, and tortured them. An assassin chased Ronnie to Botswana and tried to kill him. Another attempt was made on Gavin’s life. Both nearly succeeded. The four men were nonetheless undeterred in their pursuit of racial justice on the pitch. Despite arrests on numerous occasions for spurious charges, time-consuming trials, and the omnipresent threat of violence, the four continued to work and play with Kwaru and to oppose apartheid in all of its forms.
Courting the wrath of the state and its security apparatus, in a 1988 interview the Watsons reiterated their beliefs. Ronnie, in a statement with which the other three concurred, asserted, “Apartheid is a crime against humanity. I believe in 1 person 1 vote in a unitary non-racial democracy. . . . if this is a crime, then our society is sick.” They further asserted that although they abhorred use of violence on the part of the state to oppress people, they understood and believed in the reasons for the ANC’s decision to use violence against the state. They further maintained that they did not vote in the all-white elections, calling P.W. Botha and his alleged reforms “a sad example of a failed fascist,” comparing the Progressive Freedom Party to “a pedigreed champion, beautiful dog, with no teeth” while asking “has white parliament not become obsolete?” They also pointed out that they had “never voted in this system — that should say how we stand,” that “we support the new ANC Constitutional proposals,” and that Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo “are the genuine leaders, the true fathers of a Nation.” Despite the threats, violence, and physical and economic isolation, the Watsons continued to oppose apartheid and to support black and non-racial rugby. In many ways they can be seen as the ultimate progenitors of the spirit if not the reality that pervaded rugby in 1995 in South Africa.
Rugby among Black, Indian, and Coloured South Africans has never been as popular or as celebrated as has among its white brethren, with its superior support, financial resources, and cultural and racial heritage. That is not to say, however, that the sport has been obsolete in those communities. Indeed, the Watsons’ participation on the Kwaru side gave them a place in the long but hidden and troubled history of the South African Rugby Union. Prior to 1971 SARU had operated as the South African Coloured Rugby Football Union and included the South African Bantu Rugby Union, which made it the only rugby union for people of all colors. Despite all of the limitations and discrimination that the league and its players felt, it still produced some notable rugby players, including Cassiem Jabaar, a lightning fast, very tough scrumhalf who played for Kwaru in the 1960s and early 1970s, and Salie Fredricks, a lock forward who was “strong, uncompromising, fast, and with tremendous hands.” Both, as well as many others, would surely have made Springbok sides, strengthening the team that was putatively a symbol of national pride, but which more accurately stood for so long as a symbol of Afrikaner and white nationalist pride. Because of its multiracial nature, SARU rugby garnered very little media attention and received no radio or television coverage because the then-white South African Rugby Board (SARB) and the South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) believed that its players and teams were “rebels.” This is especially ironic since by the 1970s, South Africa was largely a pariah nation, and anyone who played them in the period prior to the end of apartheid found themselves to be renegades in international rugby. 
In the 1995 World Cup, the Springboks had only one non-white player, Chester Williams, a dominating wing from the Western Cape. Williams was nonetheless one of the most popular players on the team, largely because of his symbolic role for so many previously oppressed South Africans who saw him as the one dark ray of hope in an otherwise lily-white team. This, coupled with the gradual, if painfully slow and often circumscribed, rise of other young black stars, has put the lie to the assertion of former Springboks Hannes Marais and Uli Schmidt “that blacks are not rugby people.”
On a personal but relevant note, a few years back Rhodes University decided to expand its traditional day of sporting events. This is known as Intervarsity Weekend, the South African equivalent to the American university tradition of Homecoming, but with most all university sporting teams participating in the festival of competition. Traditionally at Intervarsity, Rhodes University played the University of Port Elizabeth. Two years previously, however, the two universities invited the University of Fort Hare, a historically African school to participate in what has since become known as “Tri-Varsity.” I played rugby for Rhodes against the 1st XV from Fort Hare and although we won 12-0, they gave us a good run, or what most of my teammates would call “a stormer of a match.”
Leaving the “Bad Old Days” Behind?: Signs of Change
Despite the signs of hope — the gradual emergence of multiracial rugby into public acceptance, the brave actions of a few whites as well as black, coloured, and Indian organizations, the 1995 World Cup and its feel-good mood, the 2007 World Cup win with its deceptively easy multiculturalism, the ascendance of Bryan Habana as arguably the greatest rugby player in the world, and the hiring of Peter de Villiers, the first non-white coach in Springbok history, there is still something of a cloud over rugby in the Rainbow Nation that is the New South Africa. It would be simplistic and reductionist to boil that cloud down to one name, but in many ways the reign of Louis Luyt, intransigent though he may be, over South African rugby and most notably his tenure as head of the South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU) was illustrative of the need for transformation if the sport is to lead and not follow South Africa away from the “bad old days.” On May 11, 1998 Luyt stepped down as the head of SARFU. His resignation, with Luyt churlish and defiant to the last, marked the end of a saga that had plagued South African rugby for years, stemming back well before the glorious 1995 season.
Over the course of the months prior to his resignation, however, Luyt had begun to anger even his own constituency. Until then, it had been almost unceasingly loyal to the former rugby star who, perhaps aptly, had made his fortune as a fertilizer salesman. Over the course of the time from the end of the World Cup, Luyt had managed to consolidate and strengthen his position in SARFU. He appointed his son-in-law, Rian Oberholzer, as chief executive of SARFU and removed from power numerous officials whom Luyt saw as a threat to his control including the former chief executive, Edward Griffiths, as well as Francois Pienaar, Morne DuPlessis, and Kitch Christie. These last three were major figures in the triumphant World Cup championship team. Pienaar was the flanker and team captain, du Plessis the manager, and Kitch Christie had been the coach. At that point, many involved in rugby believed, in Griffith’s words, that “all the gains from the World Cup had been lost.” The firings and nepotism, the perceived lack of improvement in rugby development for black and coloured players, allegations of racism within the SARFU hierarchy, and general discontent with the direction, approach, and attitude of Luyt and his organization led to complaints from many observers from both inside and outside of the rugby establishment. Those, in turn, led the National Sports Council (NSC) to investigate SARFU and the country’s rugby hierarchy. The NSC is a government organization that oversees all sport policies, and has had significant effect in promoting multiracialism in sport in South Africa. The body has been able to work in conjunction with many sports to ensure that transformation occurs not only within respective sports’ governing bodies, but also on the playing fields from the highest level to the developmental programs.
Luyt chose to challenge the NSC inquiry at every point. At one juncture, Luyt went so far as to drag Nelson Mandela before a magistrate in order to get the revered State President to justify the NSC investigation. Although Mandela would not back down from the SARFU lawyer, the spectacle disgusted many not only in the government and amongst the ANC, but also within the white, rugby-supporting community and even amongst many SARFU sponsors. Luyt stepped down in May unbowed, and maintained that he had been betrayed by his own people.
If the SARFU-NSC dispute was about anything, it was about racial transformation within the sport. Corruption, nepotism, and even ruthlessness are hardly alien to either South African politics or sport. Luyt’s ability to make money for SARFU was legendary. His personal power was unparalleled and he was able consistently to consolidate that power through legal and extra-legal means. But what Luyt, for all of his guile, tenacity, and ruthlessness, was unable to realize that the winds of change that blew over South Africa in 1994 and in 1995 also changed the face of South African nationalism. If rugby was a sport with all of the accoutrements of white racist and Afrikaner nationalism, the new ANC government was equally committed to making all sports, rugby not excepted and perhaps even particularly emphasized, emblematic of a new South African nationalism. That sporting authorities and the government have proven unable to remove the racism that cloaks rugby is no proof that a shift in nationalism has not occurred in the politics of sport.
The Rainbow Nation and “The Beast”: Transformation in Flux
Racism still pervades much of South African rugby, which is why the Luyt battle was and so many others since have been, so fiercely pitched. Throughout the late 1990s and into this decade the government, often through the NSC, threatened to replace the Springbok mascot with a symbol that carried less racist baggage. Though this effort represented a strategic and largely symbolic gambit — most citizens realize the power and importance of the mascot, and even Nelson Mandela and Chester Williams expressed their desire to keep the Bok as the national team’s symbol — it is one that nonetheless indicated the tenor of the discussion. Less symbolic are more concrete examples, such as players using racist slurs on and off the field; the use of Die Stem, the Afrikaans former National Anthem at games; the waving of the former South African flag and other banners with the old apartheid colors on them; the 1996 selection of a white player who had been convicted of the manslaughter of a black farmhand onto the national team; the use of racist slurs by SARFU executives, including Luyt; and the continuing under-representation of nonwhite players in the major competitions (with the nadir being reached in 1998 when of the 120 players representing South African sides in the Super 12 competition, only four were not white). The issue of how to get more qualified black players on the field continues to vex South African rugby, and when controversies arise, as they constantly seem to do, they most often have to do with racial makeup and accusations of letting politics interfere with the game, an ironic accusation in light of the face of sport during the apartheid years.
All of these and many other examples show how nationalism continues to play a role in sport (and vice versa). Afrikaner and white nationalists want to maintain rugby as its one remaining symbol of dominance and supremacy. Meanwhile, there are many who see a different form of nationalism developing in South Africa. This form of nationalism is nonracial, or better multiracial. They see South Africa as the “Rainbow Nation,” with sports as a microcosm of this new nationalism both inside of the country as well as in international competitions.
At this point, it is unclear which nationalism will win out. On the one hand there is the image of the Springboks prior to every game singing the national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika,” with burly, blonde Springbok players doing their best to sing the new anthem with all of its seemingly alien phonetics. This picture, like Mandela’s donning a Springbok jersey in 1995, and like The Sowetan paying homage to Amabokoboko, is largely symbolic. Some might say that so too is the use of sport-cum-nationalism. But symbolism and nationalism go hand in hand. Indeed, perhaps all nationalism is symbolism writ large. In South Africa, rugby and the struggle over it looms as a symbol with significant ramifications for the country’s continuing transformation.
1 For the most comprehensive treatment of the meaning of the 1995 World Cup for South African nation-building see John Carlin, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008). Carlin’s prose is clear and a joy to read, but perhaps places too much faith in the role that the World Cup victory played for South Africa’s long-term reconciliation. Much of the first half of Playing he Enemy also merely recapitulates the process of Nelson Mandela’s release and the negotiation process for a transition to full democratic rule, a story that has been told and told well by many writers.
2 See E.M. Swift, “Bok to the Future,” Sports Illustrated, July 3, 1995, pp. 32-33.
3 On rugby’s role in forging white nationalist identity see chapter four, “‘White Tribe Dreaming’: Rugby, Politics and White Identities in ‘White’ South Africa 1948-90” in John Naughright, Sport, Cultures and Identities in South Africa, (Cape Town: David Philip, 1997) pp. 76-100.
4 See special section on sport, titled “Sports Hall of Shame” in the series, Exposed: 40 Years of Nat Misrule, South African Sunday Tribune. Three authors wrote individual, untitled articles, Ameen Akhalwaya, Editor of The Indicator; Peter Hain, a campaigner against apartheid in sport; and journalist Isobel Shepherd Smith. See also “Sport and Sport Boycotts,” in Christopher Saunders and Nicholas Southey, eds., A Dictionary Of South African History, Cape Town: David Philip, 1998, pp.160-163.
5 On the movement to boycott South Africa’s participation in the Olympics and the general shunning of South Africa on the international sporting scene see Amy Bass, Not the Triumph But the Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), especially chapter 4, and Rob Nixon, Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood: South African Culture and the World Beyond (New York: Routledge, 1994) especially chapter 5.
6 Quoted in Akhalwaya, “Sports Hall of Shame.”
7 Peter Hain, “Sport’s Hall of Shame.”
8 See Malcolm MacLean, “Making Strange the Country and Making Strange the Countryside: Spatialized Clashes in the Affective Economies of Aotearoa/New Zealand during the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour,” in John Bale and Mike Cronin, eds., Sport and Postolonialism (Oxford: Berg, 2003), pp. 57-71.
9 The Watsons — A Monitor Interview, Monitor: The Journal of the Human Rights Trust, Port Elizabeth, October, 1988, pp. 4-11.
10 Quoted in ibid. p.4.
11 Quoted in ibid. p. 10.
12 Quoted in ibid. p.10.
13 Rene Du Preez, “Kicked into touch by racial prejudice,” South African Sunday Times, November 9, 1997, p.12.
14 For a brief comment on Williams, see Swift, “Bok to the Future.”
15 Quoted in Du Preez, “Kicked into touch by racial prejudice.”
16 The information for the section that follows stems from numerous sources. First and foremost among these are dozens of articles from the South African Weekly Mail and Guardian (M&G), from 1995 to 1998. Other sources include “Reign of Terror Ends,” Sports Illustrated, June 1, 1998 p. 29; “Religion, or a pasty-faced sport,” The Economist, April 11, 1998, p.35; Radio National transcript of The Sports Factor: Rugby and Race Relations in South Africa, from the Australian Broadcasting Company, April 3, 1998; “Mandela testifies in rugby race row,” from CNN/SI, March 19, 1998; and “Border: Luyt leading South African game to ruin,” CNN/SI, March 17, 1998.
17 Interview with Edward Griffiths (now general manager for sport for SABC), The Sports Factor transcript, p.2.
18 See Ashwin Desai and Zayn Nabbi, “Truck and Trailer’: Rugby and Transformation in South Africa,” in Sakhela Buhlungu, John Daniel, Roger Southall, and Jessica Lutchman, Eds., State of the Nation: South Africa, 2007 (Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council Press, 2007) pp. 402-424, especially p. 403.
19 Kgalema Motlanthe served as Interim President after Mbeki resigned in September 2008 until May 2009 when Jacob Zuma took office.