South Africa has a springbok in its step

A World Cup victory by its racially integrated national rugby team was not only inspiring, it set a tone of gratitude for the country’s progress on race and opportunity.

South Africa's Siya Kolisi celebrates with the Webb Ellis trophy after he and his national rugby team won the World Cup Final Nov. 2, 2019, in Japan.

One of the world’s most unequal countries, South Africa, did not feel so unequal on Saturday. Its national rugby team, the Springboks, won the World Cup with its first black captain and a team that is the most racially representative ever seen. A self-doubting nation was suddenly elevated to gratitude for a quarter century of progress since the end of white-rule apartheid.

The sheer athleticism of the team’s victory was itself praiseworthy. So is the fact that the South African squad was chosen on merit, not skin color, after a long history of rugby being only for the white minority. This created a rare moment of unity. “After generations of division, we have become a people with a great sense of national pride,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, who watched the game in Japan.

He added that South Africans often fail to appreciate how far they have come toward the goal of creating a society of inclusion and opportunity. Gratitude is an essential force multiplier for any nation, especially in moments of inspiring triumphs likes the Springboks’ victory.

For South Africa, a seed of hope for interracial progress was planted in 1995, a year after the country’s first free election and a time when only one member of the Springboks was black. That year President Nelson Mandela made a symbolic gesture of reconciliation by handing the men’s international rugby trophy to captain Francois Pienaar after the team won the World Cup. The event was made famous in the film “Invictus.”

The hope back then has turned into reality for the current captain, Siya Kolisi. According to his coach, Rassie Erasmus,“There was a time when Siya didn’t have food to eat.”  But under a post-apartheid democracy, he was able to rise from extreme poverty to fulfill a dream in sports. And beyond the integrated team he plays on, he is also married to a white woman.

Mr. Kolisi is the change South Africa seeks. Yet in the Springboks’ victory, he pointed to a lesson for himself, his teammates, and all South Africans: “We can achieve anything if we work together as one.”

South Africa still struggles to make room for individual excellence and nonracial teamwork to become the “rainbow nation” it wants to be. “There is much more that we need to do to make this a country where the black child and the white child can attain the heights they always dream of,” said President Ramaphosa.

Yet the country has not only broken a color line for black advancement but also achieved a mental breakthrough. The Springboks’ success, according to their captain, was rooted in a team desire to inspire even the poorest South African to “come and see us play.” Like Mr. Kolisi himself, the lowest in South Africa was lifted up high in Saturday’s sweet victory.

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