How rugby became a marker for inclusion in South Africa

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Team sports have an uncanny power to unite – and divide. That contradiction is particularly stark in South Africa, where sports have long played an oversized role in how South Africans see themselves.

Jerome Delay/AP
Captain Siya Kolisi holds up the Webb Ellis Cup commemorating the Springboks' Rugby World Cup win during a victory parade in Soweto, South Africa, Nov. 7, 2019.

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When Siya Kolisi hoisted the trophy from the Rugby World Cup over his head to thunderous applause, the symbolism was hard to miss. For black rugby players and fans here, the Springboks’ World Cup win confirmed something they’d spent years trying to convince their families and neighbors. Rugby didn’t just belong to white people anymore.

When apartheid ended at last in the early 1990s, sports were seen as an equally important turf for reconciliation. But even as successive governments forced professional teams to field more black players, the highest echelons of the sport were still fed mostly by disproportionately white suburban prep schools.

“When you grow up in Soweto, you grow up hearing that rugby is a sport for white people, for rich people, and soccer is a sport for black people,” says Chris Litau, the founder of the Soweto Rugby School Academy, which runs training camps and youth rugby teams for 250 kids across the township. “If you’ve been told all your life that this sport is not for you,” he says, “then it means something big to go out there and play it anyway.”

Call it Invictus, version 2.0.  

The open-top bus came thundering up South Africa’s most famous street to the roar of cheers and bleating car horns. It wound past Nelson Mandela’s old house and Desmond Tutu’s current one, carrying Soweto’s newest heroes: South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks.

The moment had the syrupy-sweet feel of a Hollywood sports drama. Three decades ago, the team was a global symbol of apartheid, the beloved sports icons of South Africa’s white minority. Soweto, a black satellite city on the southern edge of Johannesburg that crackled with protests, was a global symbol of resistance to that same system. 

Now, as the Springboks’ first black captain, Siya Kolisi, hoisted the trophy from the Rugby World Cup – which the team won Saturday – over his head to thunderous applause here, the symbolism was hard to miss.

“There’s a stereotype that this is a white sport, but we aren’t defined by that,” says Nthabiseng Mamogobo, the captain of a high school rugby team in Soweto called the Warriors.

For Ms. Mamogobo, the Springboks’ win, and their visit to Soweto, also confirmed something she’d spent two years convincing her family and friends. Rugby didn’t just belong to white people anymore. It was hers too.

For black rugby players and fans here, that feeling of inclusion matters immensely. But it’s also, many say, not nearly enough.

“If the last 25 years has taught us anything, it is that a captain and a coach can make us weep, but a rugby match cannot give us a second chance at nationhood,” wrote writer and social commentator Sisonke Msimang on the website Africa Is a Country.

Indeed, at every level, from the lush private school pitches at the heart of youth rugby to the country’s professional leagues, South African rugby is still white dominated. In a country that is 90% black, just eight black players were part of the 23-man squad in the World Cup final. And if the 2019 Springboks squad is the team of Mr. Kolisi, with his rags-to-riches story of overcoming poverty to win a rugby scholarship to an elite prep school, it is also the team of Eben Etzebeth, who is currently facing racial abuse and assault charges.

Themba Hadebe/AP
Fans await the arrival of the South Africa Springbok rugby team at the O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg Nov. 5, 2019. South Africa beat England in the Rugby World Cup final Saturday 32-12.

For many black South Africans, there is still no sport so intimately linked with whiteness, or their country’s painful history of exclusion.

“There’s been a strong push since the end of apartheid to depoliticize sports and see them simply as a thing that unites us like nothing else can,” says Francois Cleophas, a senior lecturer in sport history at Stellenbosch University. But to do that, he adds, you have to will yourself to forget both “the history of this country and the huge inequalities in opportunity that still exist today.”

Sports have long played an oversized – and deeply complicated – role in how South Africans see themselves. For decades during apartheid, sports-mad South Africa was barred from the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup for refusing to integrate its teams. When the Springboks traveled abroad for matches, meanwhile, they were met with hordes of protesters and booing crowds. So when apartheid ended at last in the early 1990s, sports were an equally important turf for reconciliation.

One moment in particular became iconic. It was June 1995. Standing on a Johannesburg rugby pitch, the Springboks’ green and gold jersey buttoned awkwardly to the collar, was Nelson Mandela. At his back was a roar of 60,000 South African rugby fans, and in front of him, their hero, Francois Pienaar, the Springboks’ captain.

For the first time since the end of apartheid the year before, a South African sports team had won a major international tournament, the Rugby World Cup – and Mr. Mandela was there to congratulate them. Forget for a second, his presence seemed to say, that all but one of the members of the squad were white. Forget that most of the fans were, too. For now, for this moment, the country was in this together.

“Sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to inspire,” Mr. Mandela later famously said. “It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

But even in the years after the Springboks’ 1995 victory, rugby struggled to remake itself for the new South Africa. Successive governments enforced, amid bitter protest, quotas that forced professional teams to field more black players. But the highest echelons of the sport were still fed mostly by disproportionately white suburban prep schools.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
“There’s a stereotype that this is a white sport, but we aren’t defined by that,” says Nthabiseng Mamogobo (pink shirt), who captains a high school rugby team in Soweto, near Johannesburg.

“When you grow up in Soweto, you grow up hearing that rugby is a sport for white people, for rich people, and soccer is a sport for black people,” says Chris Litau, the founder of the Soweto Rugby School Academy, which runs training camps and youth rugby teams for 250 kids across the township.

On a recent afternoon, a few dozen of Mr. Litau’s charges ran drills on a scruffy field in the Meadowlands section of Soweto. Many still wore their pressed school uniforms and black oxfords, crunching over broken beer bottles as they ran across a field scabbed by big patches of bald dirt. In the background rose the massive yellow mine dumps that once acted like walls separating Soweto from the white city to its north.

“There is no sport like rugby,” says Khanyisile Makumbana as she warmed up with her teammates, before launching into a greatest hits list of the sport’s best attributes: It made her see her body as tough and powerful, instead of boyish and undesirable. It made her less afraid to walk through the township at night on her own. It gave her a new crew of best friends. 

Ms. Makumbana began playing for the Rugby School Academy two years ago, when she was 15. Before then, she says, she’d never watched a rugby match in her life. Now she doodles diagrams of plays instead of diagrams of cells during science class and dreams of playing for the national women’s side.

“And when I make it, I’ll be like Siya [Kolisi],” she says. “I won’t forget where I came from.”

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Chris Litau founded the Soweto Rugby School Academy in 2016 to help fill the gap in training young black South Africans to play rugby, historically considered a “white” sport here.

But despite their skill and grit, Mr. Litau’s players still often find themselves playing David to suburban teams’ Goliath in local tournaments.

“It hurts when you go to a match and their pitch is really nice, their kit is really nice, and their parents are all there to watch with snacks for them,” Ms. Makumbana says. Her own parents, she says, are her biggest fans. But neither her mom, a school lunch lady, nor her dad, a security guard, have the time to come to her games, or the few dollars it would cost them to cross town for the privilege.

Since Mr. Litau founded his rugby academy – which provides academic support as well as sports training – in 2016, he has never had a consistent sponsor. He often digs into his own pocket to send his players to games or training camps. But he says he believes it’s an important thing to do, and not just because rugby is fun.

“If you’ve been told all your life that this sport is not for you, then it means something big to go out there and play it anyway,” he says.

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