New South Africa plays in harmony

RUGBY WORLD CUP 1995: The Springboks' return to international acceptance has not been smooth. But the winds of change have blown through the game as well as the host country, and what was a symbol of Afrikanerdom is trying to become a sport for all, says
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When Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island, the former leper colony where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, there was a song he used to sing. It was called "Tshotsholoza". He and his fellow inmates would sing it, keeping rhythm with the swing of their pick-axes, as they did their forced labour at the island's desolate lime quarry.

"Tshotsholoza" is an old miners' song whose words, in Mandela's native Xhosa, are a celebration of the steam train. A favourite at South African football grounds, the tune is bouncy and triumphant - like British football fans' "ere we go, 'ere we go". For the political prisoners on Robben Island it was a song of dignity and defiance. In February this year, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Mandela's release from prison, South Africa's first black president and a hundred other former inmates of Robben Island gathered at the old lime quarry, pick-axes in hand, and sung the song one more time.

Today the national South African rugby side, the Springboks, have adopted "Tshotsholoza" as their team song. As part of their World Cup preparations the squad's burly Afrikaners spend an hour a day with a black coach who teaches them the correct pronunciation of the Xhosa words, complete with three variations of the tongue-snapping African "click".

Things in South Africa have changed. It does not seem all that long ago that large crowds of anti-apartheid protestors at rugby grounds in England, Ireland and New Zealand where the Springboks showed up were chanting "Sieg Heil!" and "Paint them black! Send them back!" It was barely two years ago that South Africa's hooker, Uli Schmidt, gave voice to a prevailing sentiment in rugby-fevered Afrikanerdom when, with breathtaking political incorrectness, he declared: "I do not think our blacks are really made to play rugby. It's just not in their culture."

The progress of rugby in South Africa in recent years has provided a mirror of Afrikaners' awkward, uneasy, reluctant but ultimately triumphant journey from apartheid to democracy.

In October 1988, a year before FW de Klerk inherited the presidency from the brutish PW Botha, Danie Craven travelled to Harare to meet representatives of Mandela's African National Congress. Craven, the crusty patriarch of South African rugby, figured that the task of ending his country's sporting isolation required some imagination.

Little of any immediate value emerged from the meeting but back in Pretoria the powers-that-be were outraged. De Klerk, whose cabinet portfolio included sport, described the talks as "shocking". Sports figures, he said, "should not allow themselves to be abused by the ANC with a view to advancing its objectives". The ANC, said the man who six years later would voluntarily hand over power to Mandela, was "a terrorist organisation". Craven feistily responded that de Klerk's reaction reminded him of Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd, apartheid's chief engineer, when he declared in 1963 that Maoris would not be welcome in an All Black touring side.

Craven did not have to pay for his cheek because, as he had shrewdly judged, the ANC would have a much more decisive role in determining South African rugby's fate than de Klerk's National Party. When Mandela was released in February 1990 he knew that he would fail in his life's dream of bringing democracy to South Africa unless he first won over the Afrikaners, the majority sector in the white population.

English-speaking white South Africans were a politically passive bunch, by and large, whose sphere was business. Afrikaners controlled government, the civil service, the army, the police. Apartheid was the Afrikaners' ideology. Rugby was their religion. They've got the bread, Mandela figured, give them the circus.

So in August 1992 he gave his blessing to two one-off internationals on home soil against New Zealand and Australia. The New Zealand match, at Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium, showed Afrikaners at their arrogant, ungrateful worst. It had been agreed with the ANC that the crowd would not sing "Die Stem", the white national anthem; that the (now) old South African flag would not be on display; that a minute's silence would be observed in honour of the dead in the township wars. The fans broke all the rules. They booed, jeered and sang during the minute's silence, they bellowed out "Die Stem's" warlike strains and apartheid's orange, white and blue flag swung from every row of the stadium.

The international - in the liberal English media - and the national outcry that followed was accompanied by the fear that the crowd would give a similar performance the next weekend at Newlands Stadium, Cape Town, during the match against Australia. But something happened in Afrikaner minds during those seven days. It was as if at last the penny had dropped that flaunting displays of racism and, by extension, a stubborn adherence to apartheid, was not after all in their best self-interest.

The message came through loud and clear from the ANC, whose word had become gospel for the international rugby community, that if they continued to misbehave they would lose their toys. Not only was it made abundantly clear that further internationals would be at risk, the rumour circulated that if the crowd failed to observe the minute's silence the Wallabies would walk off the pitch. On the day, when the call for a minute's silence was made, you could have heard a pin drop. At the end of the minute the crowd awarded themselves the biggest cheer of the day. Australia, it turned out, won by a mile but that cheer was a victory for the South African game, a cheer of self-congratulation ("My God, we've grown up at last!") and, above all, of relief. Maybe, just maybe, the rugby peace with the ANC would hold.

A month later the Springboks set off on a tour of France and England. They were nearly called back home when sports activists linked to the ANC began denouncing the rugby authorities' woeful failure to match their cricket counterparts' hugely energetic township development programme. In the Port Elizabeth area, the only part of the country where blacks took an interest in rugby, it emerged that a black population of three million had three usable pitches at their disposal while the whites, who numbered 150,000, had more than 50. The anti-apartheid diehards in England started bracing themselves for one last push, the English rugby authorities started wondering whether they should call the tour off. But again the ANC, guided by a higher strategic objective, came to the rescue. Steve Tshwete, a former Robben Islander who today is South Africa's Minister of Sport, stepped in and said the tour should go on, the protestors should stay home.

The Springbok players did not have a happy time of it, either on or off the field. But the trip had two happy outcomes. In January 1993 Tshwete and Walter Sisulu, the grand-daddy of the ANC, emerged from a meeting with the leading figures in rugby's international hierarchy smilingly to announce that South Africa would host the 1995 World Cup. And Naas Botha, the talented but sour-faced Springbok stand-off was dropped and Francois Pienaar installed as the new team captain.

Irrespective of his abilities as a flank forward Pienaar was the ambassador South Africa needed to help guide them back to full international acceptance. Pienaar managed so successfully to establish his "new South Africa" credentials that when Uli Schmidt came out with his outrageous statement about "our blacks" the response, perhaps a little too generously, was not to attribute his buffoonish discordance to the game as a whole but to Schmidt alone.

In June 1994 Pienaar met with Mandela at the president's new office in Pretoria's Union Buildings. Having confessed to reporters before the meeting that he was nervous at the prospect of meeting a man of such standing, Pienaar emerged at a press conference after the meeting with Mandela smiling and promising that he would instruct his players to learn and sing the new national anthem. In internationals since then the big, blond Pienaar has sung his heart out, as have many of his team. The player who seems to display the least enthusiasm is Chester Williams, the one black in the team, who is now injured and out of the tournament.

At least he seems black, if you are not South African or are not familiar with the old South African way. Apartheid classified Williams and South Africa's other three million 'mestizos' as Coloured - a definition which is anathema to anti-apartheid veterans but for most Coloured people remains a proud badge of identity. Most pure black South Africans, for that matter, retain a clear awareness of the distinction between themselves and the Coloureds - their pigmentation might be similar but their culture, their neighbourhoods and their language (Afrikaans) are signally different. They used to say before apartheid's fall that Afrikaners were politically enlightened when it came to their Coloured cousins, whom economically they treated much better, but dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries towards the blacks.

So black South Africans, who make up 70 per cent of the population, do not see Williams as one of their own and, more to the point, he insists on seeing himself, in his own unreconstructed apartheid words, as a role model for the Coloured - not the black - youth. So half-hearted have rugby's township development schemes been, so resistant do blacks remain to embracing the "Boer" game, that in Soweto and elsewhere lily-white cricketers like Jonty Rhodes and Hansie Cronje have captured the imagination of the youth far more than Williams or, for that matter, Pienaar, icons both of a game most black people neither enjoy nor have any particular desire to understand.

And yet, for all that, the changes South Africa and South African rugby have undergone in a very short span of time remain nothing less than remarkable. Mandela himself has acknowledged that the old racial attitudes have not yet vanished from the South African landscape. But they are in the process of vanishing.

Things may change again but for now black and white South Africans are living in peace in a climate of political stability not seen since the arrival of the first European settlers in 1652. The white population could have reacted sourly to the imposition of ANC rule yet, encouraged by Mandela every step of the way, they are striving to embrace the new order. And they are doing so with a charming earnestness mind-boggingly exemplified in the spectacle of two dozen thick-set sons of apartheid battling, for an hour at a time, to learn the strains of the song Mandela sang in proud defiance of his oppressors at the lime quarries of Robben Island.