HISTORIANS are usually hesitant to make statements that historical events repeat themselves. There are good reasons for this, often related to changing contexts and the specific nature of historical events. However, there are occasions when such comparisons might be cautiously justified.
One of these involves the reaction in South Africa to the Springboks winning their fourth Rugby World Cup against the All Blacks and how it compares to their first victory in 1995. The rivalry between the two traditional rugby foes, spanning almost a century, has a specific aura and intensity that sets it apart from contests with other nations.
Clearly, what transpired on the field is of primary importance for the aftermath. In 1995, South Africa's victory in Johannesburg was sealed in the last minute of extra time by Joel Stransky, with a score of 15-12 in their favour. In 2023, Jordie Barrett had the opportunity to put the All Blacks ahead with a penalty kick seven minutes before the end of the match in Paris, but his failed attempt meant South Africa could hold on for a 12-11 victory.
The nailbiting results emphasise how small the difference between winning and losing was and, embedded within them, the immense relief and emotional release for South African supporters after the victories. These were cathartic moments that resonated widely.
It would not be too far-fetched to argue that the public excitement and unbridled victory celebrations in South Africa (partly due to greater black and brown representation in the 2023 team) even surpass those of 1995. While black people also embraced the euphoria of 1995, their participation was not as visible and integrated.
Transparent, not credible
Currently, the expression of a spontaneous South African ideology, involving various layers of the population, is more noticeable in public spaces. It is regrettable that the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture thought it wise to sponsor so-called super-fans in the persons of Mama Joy Chauke and Botha Msila to go to Paris. This was unnecessary. With such a transparent and unconvincing attempt to manufacture support, existing significant black support in the country is being undermined.
Politicians, always on the lookout for publicity opportunities they can exploit, ensure they are never far from the limelight with such events. Victories are harnessed for “nation-building" purposes. In 2019, with South Africa's third World Cup triumph, it was an obviously pleased Cyril Ramaphosa who quickly linked it to “new hope".
In an even more exaggerated manner, he used Saturday's victory to once again present “hope" alongside the virtues of diversity and unity and the slogan “Stronger together" to his fellow South Africans. This victory has also become a convenient peg for all sorts of government plans. Ramaphosa went as far as announcing in a presidential address on Monday that December 15 would be a public holiday.
His predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who left the country in tatters, never had the opportunity to drink from the victory cup. Another head of state, Thabo Mbeki, made patriotic sounds after the 2007 triumph, but as a leader who spent 28 years in exile and was not particularly focused on Afrikaner sports, he was more reserved in his praise.
Magical moment with Mandela
In 1995, of course, it was Nelson Mandela. Among all these leaders, Mandela stands out as an embodiment of a magical moment when he triumphantly raised the cup alongside captain Francois Pienaar after the victory over the All Blacks at Ellis Park. It was an occasion of such magnitude that in 2015, Mandela — who had rarely, if ever, held a rugby ball — posthumously received a place in the World Rugby Hall of Fame in Britain.
The term “hope" and the accompanying calls to extend the unity that prevails on the sports field to broader society are a staple after of epoch-making sporting achievements. Especially in South Africa, which is regressing on various levels and facing numerous challenges, there is a great need for even a glimmer of hope. While “hope" has historically been a recurring theme, it does not necessarily imply the same aspirations. In 1995, when apartheid had been formally abolished the year before, there was hope for a new and more egalitarian society without racial friction in a generally flourishing country.
Since then, particularly with the gradual institutional failures, an almost bankrupt state and widespread infrastructural decay, that hope has all but disappeared. Considering these circumstances, the new “hope" of 2023 focuses on a near-desperate rallying cry for awakening and recovery. The Springboks, who had to overcome many obstacles on their journey to World Cup glory, now serve as an example of what South Africans can achieve through their resilience and determination. It's as if both white and black, through their unrestrained emotions in public spaces and elsewhere, want to say, “We can be better!"
And that's a good thing; it's right and beautiful. The heart must sometimes prevail. However, if history does repeat itself, it may be in ways we wouldn't welcome. Just as premature jubilation has been extinguished in the past, the years after 2023 may also bring disappointment. The challenges are, after all, much greater now. And rugby alone can not solve them.
♦ VWB ♦
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