JULIUS MALEMA claims that Jan van Riebeeck's descendants discovered an already healthy rugby culture at the southern tip of Africa. His facts might not be entirely correct, but he does have a point. In the Eastern Cape, black rugby has significant historical roots and is part of the political identity of communities, more so than many white South Africans may realise.
In the 1980s, as a student playing rugby under the encouragement of the renowned John Walter Donaldson in townships such as Crossroads, Nyanga, Gugulethu and Paarl's Mbekweni, I had to get used to robust Xhosa-speaking forwards who would carry the ball with an unpredictable sidestep. On dry fields and in pavilions without seating, there were plenty of Siya Kolisis, Beast Mtawariras and Makazole Mapimpis, but opportunities and money were scarce. The pavilions were packed with Eastern Cape fans and coloured kids who knew and appreciated their rugby. The game often started an hour or two late while everyone waited for the church service to end.
By the way, back then I also played a few matches alongside Vrye Weekblad's rugby expert, Louis de Villiers. Louis was intellectually a cut above most of us, but in the midfield he was a quota player without a sidestep in any direction; something that reminded me of Nataniël's story of how he played lock for two years at school without touching the ball even once. To Louis's credit, he was a living example that you don't have to be able to lay eggs to have a full understanding of natural selection among winged dinosaurs. And he did score two tries for the De Akker XV against Ciskei's B team that one time.
Going back to my point that Malema's argument isn't entirely without merit: the Eastern Cape is indeed the cradle of black rugby. It's highly likely that Christian mission stations first exposed the people of the province to the colonial game. Although organised coloured and black rugby had been played in the Eastern Cape for quite some time by the late 1880s, the Eastern Province Rugby Union was established only in 1886. The playing fields of that time were in Kwampudu and Maxambheni, areas predominantly inhabited by coloured and black South Africans. It was only in 1893 that rugby in the province became segregated into coloured and black unions.
Much has been written about the injustices suffered by black and coloured rugby players before 1994. It's a clichéd question, but how many black Springboks who could have scrummed an All Black pack into reverse gear disappeared into the folds of apartheid's obsession with white rugby? As a student, I often watched WP League, an initiative by Doc Craven, which would play the main opener at Newlands on the day of a big game. It consisted mostly of coloured players, who would often give air to the ball in a way that really excited the spectators. They were the most balanced and natural ball carriers, built for running rugby like the South Sea Islanders. But it was rare for these natural athletes to reach the highest levels of the sport.
To understand the realities and history of South African rugby, it is perhaps necessary to read Malema's statement about its origins with Bethlehem Express Bongi Mbonambi's alleged — and now denied — reference to the English flanker Tom Curry as a “white cunt". The reaction of white South Africans to the allegation has been extremely significant.
Why did the vast majority of white South Africans stand as one with a black player who was alleged to have said something that would normally be labelled as racist in Mzansi? It turns out that context is important. Anywhere else in the world the second part of the allegation would have been the greater offence, but in South Africa the adjective (white) is considerably more sensitive and perhaps even a reason to refer to the expression as hate speech.
Perhaps it's because the alleged insult was directed at an “outsider", which for some reason makes it more palatable to the white psyche. And those with a family history stretching back to the Anglo-Boer War might just refer to the expression as a fatal euphemism. In the Low Countries, where “kont" refers to buttocks, the Afrikaners' forefathers still have no idea what the fuss is about.
Almost without exception, South Africans made fun of the allegation, even if many whites suspected Mbonambi's initial silence about Curry's allegation meant he was indeed guilty. If Malema had uttered something like that in public, the white anger would have registered on the Richter scale. But Mbonambi got off scot-free in the ranks of Loftus and Ellis Park fans, and Rassie Erasmus added a supporting photo of the Springbok hooker to his X account.
If Mbonambi or any other black player had uttered the same words in the local rugby league, calls for his suspension and even a ban would have been fairly common on social media. An angry and resentful AfriForum would have run to the Human Rights Commission and the Afrikaans media would have been full of allegations of hate speech. It is hard to imagine that Mbonambi would have been selected for the Springbok team in the immediate aftermath of such a controversy. There is even a reasonable probability that his white teammates would have taken serious offence.
But far away in France, and with an English rugby player as the target of the alleged political insult, “white cunt" was isolated from the South African context. The videos that were going around of Mbonambi's teammates on the training field joking about “dié kant", “onkant" en “steelkant" in Afrikaans are proof that the allegations did nothing to harm the sense of unity in the team. Even more important is that the offending expression was not brought to bear on the sensitivities of racial politics in South Africa.
The ease with which South Africans dealt with the Mbonambi incident is also related to another phenomenon. After 1994 and with the realisation that the sport could not continue as white entertainment only, the straw of quotas was grasped. When opportunities finally arose for black players under the guise of transformation, almost without exception they had to bear the cross of being labelled “quota players", Saturday after Saturday, deservedly or undeservedly.
There was considerably more dignity and honour in the term “impact player" — also an athlete lacking the skills to make a difference for the full 80 minutes — than in the unenviable label of being called a quota player. When Currie Cup teams did well, it was because the white players had done their bit, but when they lost it was because the quota players had let them down.
Nelson Mandela probably stole the hearts of white South Africans at Ellis Park in 1995 but the Springbok was still very much part of rugby's white history, as was the case by the time the final whistle blew at the 2007 World Cup final at Stade de France. Even after the conclusion of the 2019 World Cup there was still a realisation that a black captain alone could not heal the “quota player" wounds and endear the Springboks to people in the townships.
But between 2007 and 2019, Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and other coaches who were serious about transformation began to see how their investment in black rugby talent yielded dividends, first in Super Rugby and eventually also at national level. Mtawarira was a phenomenon at Kings Park, and the pass from Lukhanyo Am to Mapimpi that led to South Africa's first try in a World Cup final is etched in the collective memory of every South African who loves the game. Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe are natural game-breakers and represent a tribute to the coloured players of yesteryear who never had the opportunity to play for their country.
Under Nienaber and Erasmus, black players had the freedom to sing spontaneously in the dressing rooms in languages that some of the coloured and white players did not necessarily understand but could still strongly identify with. The video clip of Erasmus talking movingly about Mapimpi, who had no family whose pictures he could put on his Springbok jersey, is my first experience of a white player (or coach, these days) crying over the lived experience of a black player.
By the time Mbonambi confounded Curry by adopting the “language of the oppressor" in the heat of battle, the derogatory term “quota player" was a thing of the past. The idea of rugby as a cultural extension of white political behaviour no longer applies. Black South Africans embrace the Springbok and rugby precisely because every player in the team was chosen on merit, but perhaps also because white South Africans have matured enough not to actually be “white cunts".
Perhaps Malema's facts about black rugby are not correct, but in an ironic way he does give recognition to the rugby players of the Eastern Cape who already loved the game in the 19th century, despite being disregarded and isolated, and made it their own.
♦ VWB ♦
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