South Africans seek to harness hope after rugby victory

Success has punctured air of national despondency by underlining togetherness

The South Africa rugby team were greeted by huge crowds as they arrived home victorious from the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Video: Reuters

 

As South Africans waited for their Rugby World Cup-winning team to bring the trophy home this week, many were pondering a question that goes beyond sport: how do you harness hope?

The Springboks’ stunning success last weekend in Japan, when they comprehensively beat England in the final, has lifted the spirits of a deeply divided country.

On Tuesday night, when coach Rassie Erasmus and his players arrived back in Johannesburg with the Webb Ellis Cup, he told reporters he wanted Saturday’s victory to act as a “springboard” for the country.

“There are so many bigger things that we have to fix [in the country],’’ said the newly crowned World Rugby coach of the year.

South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi ) holds up the Web Ellis trophy as the team parades through the streets of Johannesburg on Thursday. Photograph: Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images
South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi ) holds up the Web Ellis trophy as the team parades through the streets of Johannesburg on Thursday. Photograph: Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images

The so-called rainbow nation that emerged under former president Nelson Mandela after the end of apartheid in 1994 is a shadow of its former self, faltering under the weight of economic stagnation and crippling social ills.

Racism, corruption, massive inequality and a frightening crime rate have beaten many people into submission, creating an air of national despondency that hangs like a cloud over the country.

So how do you exploit the euphoria and hope the Springboks’ success generated, for the greater good of all?

The team, which is the most racially diverse group ever to represent the senior Springboks, wants to use its victory to inspire South Africans to work together, with the subtext being: if people can do that, many of the country’s other problems will be more easily solvable.

First black captain

Siya Kolisi, the national team’s first black captain, told the youth of the country on Tuesday that the victory showed “anything can be overcome” if South Africans work together and get opportunities.

Erasmus and his players started a five-city trophy tour in Gauteng Province on Thursday that will finish in Cape Town next week, and no doubt similar messages will be imparted along the way.

But is it realistic to think that winning the Rugby World Cup can positively influence a society as fractured as South Africa’s?

City Press newspaper columnist Simnikiwe Xabanisa wrote that, for different reasons, South Africa’s two previous rugby triumphs – in 1995 and 2007 – and the hope they created were rendered mirages by sections of society reverting to their racially intolerant type shortly after both tournaments ended.

Springbok fans celebrate in Johannesburg on Thursday. Photograph: Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images
Springbok fans celebrate in Johannesburg on Thursday. Photograph: Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images

However, he said Erasmus’s 31-man Springboks squad – which had 11 players of colour compared to the two that were involved in 2007, and one in 1995 – had given South Africa a blueprint “of what it is like when we decide to work together”, if the lessons of the past were heeded.

Cape Town architect Charl Marais says that winning the tournament can help South African society to move in a better direction if issues like crime and unemployment are also managed properly.

“Hope provides a vision, it creates a pathway that people can follow and believe in,” he said, “But we had hope after we won the world cup in 2007, and after that we had a massive increase in corruption and poverty for 10 years, so it’s not a magic bullet.”

Myths of the poor

University of Johannesburg politics professor Mcebisi Ndletyana maintained the Springboks victory should also help to dispel one of the myths that undermine the poor: the prevailing apartheid-era stereotype that says blacks do not have the ability to excel.

“It is important to sustain this new symbolism of black excellence so young people can achieve their ambitions, but the government needs to invest in townships so there are opportunities they can avail of to prove it,” he told The Irish Times.

When it comes to investing in townships, the private sector also has a massive role to play, according to Ayanda Cuba and Buntu Matole, two young men who started a bike tour business in Khayelitsha township near Cape Town after recently participating in an Airbnb-run tourism academy.

Ayanda Cuba and Buntu Matole, who have a bike tour business in Khayelitsha township near Cape Town. Photograph: Thom Pierce
Ayanda Cuba and Buntu Matole, who have a bike tour business in Khayelitsha township near Cape Town. Photograph: Thom Pierce

The Airbnb Africa Academy, which was established in 2018, teaches township residents how to access the economic opportunities that tourism holds.

Matole said his experience in the academy showed him first-hand how tangible opportunities have a transformative effect on people.

“Before, they [the academy’s students] never saw themselves as people who could be part of the tourism industry. Now, many have a better understanding of how to be involved in this space and how it can help build their communities,” he said.

Race relations

South Africa’s former ambassador to Ireland, Melaine Verwoerd, believes the 2019 Springboks can also help to improve local race relations, as the public’s response to their victory shows South Africans are less divided than politicians would have you believe.

“What was highlighted again on Saturday was that most of us share a common identity, common values and common decency,” Verwoerd said in a column for online media outlet News24 on Wednesday.

Further proof of this, she said, was the public’s response to a divisive tweet sent out by a leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the country’s third-largest political party, in the minutes after the Springboks overcame England.

The radical left-wing movement’s national spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi tweeted “Congratulations to Siya Kolisi . . . the rest go get your congratulations from Prince Harry”, a snide reference to the colonial heritage that many of the team possess.

But most of some 7,800 replies on Twitter that Ndlozi had received by Friday were highly critical of his divisiveness, rather than supportive of his stance.

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