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Hope: When a black South African lifted the Rugby World Cup

Hope: When a black South African lifted the Rugby World Cup

Hope: When a black South African lifted the Rugby World Cup
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By Wasi Manazir  Nov 4, 2019 9:08:21 AM IST (Updated)

The symbolism of a black man from a South African shantytown lifting the most prestigious rugby trophy in the world is not lost on anyone. It is a stuff of dreams and Hollywood scripts, and it inspires so much, including, yes, hope.

When South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995 the country was still in the nascent stages of its post-apartheid existence. Nelson Mandela had walked out a free man from a 27-year imprisonment only five years earlier and the country hosted its first truly democratic election barely a year ago. In what was and still is predominantly a white man’s game, which was off limits to the majority of the South African population during apartheid, Mandela saw an opportunity to bring his fractious country together. He saw his fellow South Africans cheering in unison their representatives in the green jersey on a rugby field.

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South Africa went on to win the World Cup and in a hugely symbolic gesture Mandela, donning the green jersey and cap of the Springboks, lifted the Webb Ellis Cup with the white captain Francois Pienaar. It was personification of one of the Freedom Charter ideals: “We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white…” The team that took the field against New Zealand in the final, however, had just one black player.
Despite Mandela’s overtures to heal the historic wounds through rugby, not every South African was as magnanimous and the majority still saw the game as a symbol of exclusion and a leisure for their oppressors.
The neoliberal policies that have followed the apartheid have not just betrayed many of the promises of the Freedom Charter — which for so long served to unite the populace under a common goal against apartheid — but have gone on to make South Africa into one of the most unequal societies in the world, with all the associated ills that inequality brings. Even Mandela’s symbolism of a black man at rugby didn’t exactly help bring the different skin tones together on a level playing field. If Chester Williams was the only black player in the playing XV in 1995, there were just two when South Africa won the World Cup a second time in 2007.
FILE - In this June 24, 1995 file photo, South African rugby captain Francios Pienaar, right, receives the Rugby World Cup from President Nelson Mandela after they defeated New Zealand 15-12 in the final at Ellis Park, Johannesberg, South Africa. Siya Kolisi was a 4-year-old child when South Africa won its first Rugby World Cup title in 1995 but he remembers the national euphoria of the Springboks' second World Cup title in 2007. The first black player appointed as Springboks captain gets his chance at history when he leads South Africa against England in the final on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019 in Yokohama Japan. (AP Photo/Ross Setford,File) Francios Pienaar receives the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy from Nelson Mandela. (AP Photo/Ross Setford, File)
The introduction of quota system in the country’s sports teams has served to address the balance over the following years. And history was made on Saturday when the first black captain of the Springboks, Siya Kolisi, lifted the World Cup in Yokohama. Five of the playing XV on Saturday were black and one of mixed race, an indication that racial redressal, having staggered in the early post-apartheid years, has gathered some pace.
Kolisi, who grew up in poverty and saw the 2007 final as a 16-year-old in a shantytown tavern for the lack of a TV at home, will surely inspire many of his black countrymen to take up rugby. The well-spoken Springbok captain in his post-match remarks used rugby as a metaphor to heal South Africa’s problems. “We come from different backgrounds, different races, and we came together with one goal...I really hope that we’ve done that for South Africa...We can achieve anything if we pull together as one,” he said.
Rassie Erasmus, the South Africa head coach who took charge two years ago when the team looked anything but world beaters, put the win and its significance in perspective thus: “... in South Africa pressure is not having a job. Pressure is one of your close relatives being murdered. South Africa has a lot of problems and we started talking about how rugby shouldn’t be something that puts pressure on you. It should be something that creates hope. We started about how we are privileged.
“Hope is not talking about hope and saying hope and tweeting a good tweet about hope, hope is when you play well. Hope is when people watch the game and have a nice BBQ and watch the game and they feel good afterwards, no matter your differences, for those 80 minutes you agree despite disagreeing about a lot of things. It is not our responsibility, it is our privilege.”
And just like that the word hope, coming from two affable and well-meaning men, seems stripped of all the sinister connotations it has acquired in a world of post-Obama presidency. There was no hope for millions whose lives were devastated in Yemen, Libya and various conflicts that rage around the world as a consequence of the actions of a president whose reign followed a campaign in which a Warholesque pop art poster declared “HOPE”.
The symbolism of a black man from a South African shantytown lifting the most prestigious rugby trophy in the world is not lost on anyone. It is a stuff of dreams and Hollywood scripts, and it inspires so much, including, yes, hope.
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