Twenty years on from one of the Rugby World Cup’s defining images – Nelson Mandela presenting the trophy to Francois Pienaar to the delight of a “rainbow nation” – South Africa’s struggles with transformation and the racial make-up of their national team continues to make headlines.
A fringe political group, Agency for New Agenda, had its action to stop the Springboks travelling to England thrown out of court on Wednesday, but there may still be a judicial inquiry into whether the pace of transformation is quick enough in rugby, given the make-up of South Africa’s 31-man squad for the forthcoming tournament: 23 white players and eight “of colour”.
Even those numbers have been debated in the South Africa media, with the Stormers centre Damian de Allende’s father Tony feeling obliged to state that his son – who has some Portuguese ancestry – is white. When the South African Rugby Union (SARU) vice-president Mark Alexander said he was “satisfied” with the squad’s demographic, it was interpreted by some reporters as meaning there were nine players of colour in the 31, which would be closest to the 30 per cent target set in SARU’s “strategic transformation plan”. SARU have since confirmed the correct number is eight, and that De Allende is white.
The first thing to understand is that transformation is a non-negotiable cornerstone of everyday South African life, post-apartheid. The second is that while targets are set, there is no formal punishment if they are not met. Among the astounding 71 “key performance indicators” in the strategic plan, unveiled this year, the most talked about was the 30 per cent figure for the World Cup, and the ongoing target that non-whites should make up 50 per cent of all domestic and national teams by 2019.
Everything else is riven with nuance and opinion. There was just one non-white player – Chester Williams – among the 28 Springboks who won the 1995 World Cup under Pienaar’s captaincy. Whether eight today is too many, just right or insufficient is entirely subjective. The Springboks’ head coach Heyneke Meyer maintains De Allende and every other player is selected on merit, although SARU is obliged to report the relevant figures to the government.
Much attention has focused on the uncapped scrum-half Rudy Paige, who was selected for the squad alongside the experienced Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar, and ahead of the arguably better-qualified Cobus Reinach – who has played in 10 Tests in the last 12 months – and the 35-times capped Francois Hougaard. The decisions by Ireland and Australia to each select only two regular scrum-halves are considered purely on sporting terms. Pity poor Paige, who would be forgiven for feeling some of the pain of Kaya Malotana, the wing who played one Test for the Springboks, against Spain in 1999. Now retired, Malotana recently called his selection “both a blessing and a curse – a blessing... to represent my country at the highest level and a curse because the headlines had labelled me a ‘quota’.”
SARU’s chief executive Jurie Roux has pointed out that 84 per cent of the country’s under-18 population are black African, but there are provinces where only one school in 35 plays rugby. Furthermore, one former SARU employee told The Independent on Sunday that the union could have done more to build on the strong interest that has existed among non-whites in coastal areas from Cape Town to Durban, for decades before that 1995 Mandela moment.
Certainly Meyer will want to avoid the controversy that blighted South Africa’s cricket team in their losing World Cup semi-final last March. There were claims, denied officially, that a last-minute text message from Cricket South Africa persuaded the Proteas to drop bowler Kyle Abbott in favour of Vernon Philander, to raise the non-white representation.
How much any of this has contributed to the Springboks’ poor recent run is unclear. They have slipped to fourth in the world rankings, and lost all three Rugby Championship matches, including a home defeat by Argentina. There were only two non-white players in the starting team that day, prompting talk of “racist choices” by a trade union.
On Thursday, De Allende retweeted a supporter’s comment: “A lot of negative things in the media but we are behind each & every 1 of u – forget about the politics & bring the cup home”. An educated guess is that the subject will stay in the shadows if South Africa win the cup for a third time. If the Springboks stumble in the pool, or get knocked out in the quarters, watch out.
Back to front - a mixed 12 months
Lost 24-23 v Australia - Perth, 6 Sep 2014
Lost 14-10 v New Zealand - Wellington, 13 Sep 2014
Won 28-10 v Australia - Cape Town, 27 Sep 2014
Won 27-25 v New Zealand - Johannesburg, 4 Oct 2014
Lost 29-15 v Ireland - Dublin, 8 Nov 2014
Won 31-28 v England - Twickenham, 15 Nov 2014
Won 22-6 v Italy - Padua, 22 Nov 2014
Lost 12-6 v Wales - Cardiff, 29 Nov 2014
Lost 24-20 v Australia - Brisbane, 18 Jul 2015
Lost 27-20 v New Zealand - Johannesburg, 25 Jul 2015
Lost 37-25 v Argentina - Durban, 8 Aug 2015
Won 26-12 v Argentina - Buenos Aires, 15 Aug 2015
Rugby World Cup squad (players of colour in bold):
W Alberts, S Brits, S Burger, D de Allende, L de Jager, J de Villiers (capt), B du Plessis, J du Plessis, F du Preez, P-S du Toit, E Etzebeth, B Habana, Z Kirchner, S Kolisi, J Kriel, P Lambie, W le Roux, F Louw, F Malherbe, V Matfield (vice-capt), T Mtawarira, L Mvovo, T Nyakane, C Oosthuizen, R Paige, R Pienaar, J P Pietersen, H Pollard, M Steyn, A Strauss, D VermeulenReuse content