Sweet draught from Springboks' cup of joy

Deon Viljoen finds, in rapturous victory, South Africans are united in song
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Of all the memorable images that linger of South Africa's unexpected success at Ellis Park, and indeed during the entire Rugby World Cup tournament, the aspect of new and renewed self-confidence is the most compelling.

All manner of technical inadequacies have crippled the Springboks since their return to the international fold in 1992, though the most debilitating was an almost innate canker of self-doubt.

This lack of confidence stemmed largely from a country devastated by apartheid, from the deep social and cultural fissures in the fabric of the nation. Failure to bridge these divisions in the past condemned rugby to be pigeon-holed by public perception as an elitist sport beloved of the racist, white oppressor. No more.

The lasting achievement of Francois Pienaar and company far exceeds winning the Webb Ellis trophy. Their ultimate triumph was one of self-confidence in the face of incredible odds - many self-inflicted, such as the lack of discipline against Canada - and in so doing liberating the Rainbow Nation, with its many transitional troubles of cynicism, and infusing all South Africans with a gung-ho spirit. It is almost as if they - we - need to be convinced each day that romance does exist, and that the old-fashioned qualities of courage and faith in your own ability are still worth nurturing.

Greatness depends on self-confidence, and the statesmanly figure of Nelson Mandela has rendered this service to South Africa. Thus it was entirely appropriate, if a trifle unsporting, that he should have dressed in a Springbok jersey and cap for the World Cup climax.

A deft politician, Mandela has fully exploited the swing in public perception. So when Pienaar prepared to hoist the cup of joy and declared that his team had been lifted not only by 60,000-odd spectators at Ellis Park but by 43 million compatriots, Madiba (or father, as Mandela is affectionately known) almost danced a jig up on the podium. The captain of South Africa has clearly taken a few public-relations tips from the master.

That post-match freeze-frame moment was by no means the only powerful image of an extraordinary day. The Springboks contested the World Cup with the slogan: "One team, one country", and it had a somewhat hollow ring at the outset.

This was to change. For instance, as the tournament progressed and South Africa's resolute if unspectacular advance gathered momentum, so their anthem gained in popular appeal. Known as Shosholoza, it is a song immortalised by Zulu migrant labourers with a refrain that is foreign to rugby's predominantly Afrikaans ear.

Still, whenever that alliterative freak of an athlete Jonah Lomu threatened to break South Africa's colossal defensive ring which deprived him of space, and whenever the crowd was hushed by the sight of the Springboks being confounded by Ian Jones's towering line-out presence, the emotional trump card was played.

During each excruciating break in the action, the Ellis Park public announcer sent sho-sholoza bursting through the sound-system. From a New Zealand perspective, this was unsporting, even boorish behaviour, though perhaps excusable in the context of the bitter rivalry between these two proud rugby powers.

Never mind. As the pressure mounted in that desperate passage of extra time, South African supporters manfully mumbled, as if in prayer, the few words of Shosholoza they actually knew. Throughout the disappointment of a tryless yet pulsating final, they tried to come to terms with this wonderful song, however difficult the language was. How they tried. In the end the Springboks soared on the emotion of this Zulu song, higher even than that dramatic drop goal by Stransky that sent a nation into orbit.

One of the most incongruous sights of the raging victory celebration outside Ellis Park was the once-hated riot police being embraced by a bunch of youthful black rugby supporters.

It was almost too good to be true, but if South Africa could overcome their many technical shortcomings and become world champions on a fair dollop of emotion, I suppose nothing is impossible.

Deon Viljoen is a former South African sports writer of the year.

Comments