The power of sport to bring people together was on display when underdogs South Africa upset a previously rampant England 32-12 in the Rugby World Cup Final on 2 November in Yokohama, Japan.
Social media was awash with messages of support, giving meaning to the boks’ marketing hashtag #StrongerTogether. Schoolchildren sang the national anthem, office workers dressed up in rugby gear and homeless people attended public screenings. The country celebrated as one. For a few glorious days, South Africa put aside its problems – the ailing economy, political machinations and racial tensions – to support the team and feel good about something, together.
Sporting success contributes to a country’s “soft power” too, the ability to use culture and non-military means to gain influence on the global stage. This win could just provide the momentum South Africa needs to repair its global image, damaged by the xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals, and to boost its flagging moral influence undercut by state capture, corruption and frequent power cuts.
The campaign in Japan can teach us something about leadership. The Springbok team was in tatters at the end of 2017. It had lost 57-0 to New Zealand, and just had a disastrous end-of-year tour to Europe. The coach was fired. No-one gave them a snowball’s chance in hell to lift the Rugby World Cup for the third time at the 2019 tournament, especially after the way the English had dispatched Argentina, Australia and the mighty New Zealand All Blacks.
But self-belief, an indomitable team spirit and a ruthless game plan by their wily coach Rassie Erasmus counted. So did gutsy leadership by the first black South African rugby captain, the inspirational Siya Kolisi, which pulled them through the bruising final. The utter joy on the faces of the team and President Cyril Ramaphosa drenched in champagne under Tokyo skies was infectious.
Of course, 80 minutes of rugby is not a panacea for South Africa’s profound problems. But it does prove that dreams can be achieved with hard work, even if they seem impossible. This was acknowledged by coach and captain. Erasmus said, “There are a lot of problems in South Africa … rugby should be something that creates hope … We’ve got the privilege of giving people hope.”
Kolisi added, “I have never seen South Africa like this. We were playing for the people back home. We can achieve anything if we work together as one.” South Africa’s political leaders could take many cues from this.
It is no small irony that rugby is offering the country hope as it battles with the effects of deep-seated graft, economic gloom and social scourges like gender-based violence. For many decades, black South Africans were legally barred from playing rugby with white South Africans. In the 1970s and 1980s the ANC and the global anti-apartheid movement deliberately targeted the game so beloved by Afrikaners for boycotts and disrupted all-white tours abroad. Their slogan was “no normal sport in an abnormal society.” South Africa was reduced to hosting second-stringers in unofficial rebel tours. Apartheid South Africa was ineligible to play in the first two Rugby World Cups in 1987 and 1991.
In the same way that they recognised that sport bans would hit apartheid South Africa where it hurt, the ANC also recognised that relaxing the sports boycott would be an important trust-building measure in the country’s transition to democracy. Cricket was first to be allowed back into international sport (in 1991), but rugby was not far behind, and the young country hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995. The squad contained just one black player, the late Chester Williams. President Nelson Mandela, the master of optics, visited the team on the day of the final wearing the number six journey of captain Francois Pienaar. Few will forget the cheers of “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” from the overwhelmingly white crowd at Ellis Park that day, or Mandela’s ecstatic waved fists as he handed Pienaar the golden trophy.
South Africa’s win in 2019 has also reverberated across Africa. The continental response has seen this as a victory for Africa and the Global South. Maybe it can heal the deep wounds the xenophobic attacks inflicted.
Namibian President Hage Geingob tweeted, “Africa is proud of your brilliant performance in Japan!”
Zimbabwe’s MDC politician David Coltart tweeted, “Hearty congratulations to #SiyaKolisi and your merry men. Our hearts are swelling with pride for #Africa today!” The sentiment was echoed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. They both hailed the exploits of Zimbabwean-born powerhouse prop Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira.
The Uganda Rugby Union tweeted, “When #Africa wins, we all win. Congratulations @Springboks. Back here in #Uganda we are so proud of you!”
Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission tweeted, “What a victory! What a team! My warmest congratulations to #SiyaKolisi and the @Springboks for a well-deserved #RWCFinal you made your country, and the entire Continent proud! #StrongerTogether.”
Jorge Chediek, Director of the UN Office for South-South Cooperation, gleefully tweeted his joy that the cup had gone to the Global South, even though his own country, Argentina, had failed to make it into the quarterfinals. Everyone wants a piece of you when you’re a winner!
Yet again, this sport that was once so divisive has inspired a nation to overcome its obstacle. Many wish the unity and euphoria of this win could be banked and bottled as the country faces its challenges. How can this positive spirit be translated into something tangible, to rid us of the toxicity in our national discourse? For a start, the Twitterverse almost universally panned the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi’s divisive tweet that congratulated Kolisi but said, ‘the rest go get your congratulations from Prince Harry.’
Politicians, businesses, civil society and ordinary South Africans need to find ways to tap into the togetherness that will last longer than a week. We can start with how we talk to one another.
Steven Gruzd heads the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. His Honours Dissertation was on the re-entry of South Africa into international sport in the 1990s.