South Africa the History of Rugby

Article excerpt

Nelson Mandela played the game. Steve Biko organised several of his outlawed clandestine Black Consciousness meetings around matches in Black townships in the Transvaal, the Eastern Province and the Western Cape. Eminent historians have called it a '(Black) African Game'. The sport, as one may have guessed, is rugby union, which in the South African context has been mythologised for more than a century as a "white man's game."

WHITE SPRINGBOK (THE SOUTH African national rugby team) captains on tour during those heady apartheid years often used to exalt the official mantra: "The Black and Coloured (mixed race) population in South Africa are not interested in sport, as if oblivious to its inherent paternalism, which was the very mainstay of the ethos of apartheid, which infantilised the black populations as mere children who needed to be guided and nurtured by the civilised god-fearing whites.

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It is a mythology that supposedly went to the emotional core of Afrikanerdom, and that has unfortunately been perpetuated over the years by both a disinterested and uninformed domestic and international media. It has been propped up over the years by the institutionally racist sports policy Weltanschauung under British rule in the Cape Colony in the late 19th century and by the apartheid regimes of successive Afrikaner nationalist governments respectively, in most of the 20th century.

The irony is that in post-apartheid South Africa there is still a minority of die-hard ideologues within the very corpus of the ruling African National Council (ANC), who still see rugby as a symbol of racially-motivated sporting dominance and the oppression by the Boere (Afrikaners) of the Blacks, Coloureds, Cape Malays and Indians.

These are the ideologues who despise the Springbok emblem as a symbol of multiracialism and would like it removed from the national rugby jersey, oblivious to the fact that national teams representing the Coloureds and Black Africans too have laid claim to the emblem during the apartheid years.

As a compromise, the post-apartheid unified non-racial South African Rugby Board agreed to migrate the Springbok emblem to the upper right of the jersey with the national flower, the Protea, taking centre-stage, with the national flag on the upper left of the jersey. The truth, needless to say, about rugby and race in South Africa could not be further from the truth. Rugby union, in fact, is as much entrenched in the DNA of non-European South Africans as it is in their white compatriots. A word of explanation and context though! In the twisted lexicon of apartheid, Africans were classified under the Race Classification Act as Bantu (native Africans), each legally domiciled to their ethnic "homeland'--be they Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho etc. The Coloureds (Mixed--Race) are the progeny of Whites and Blacks--for no amount of race laws was going to prevent that from happening.

The Cape Malays are the descendants of Sheikh Yusuf, the Prince of Batavia, who was a Royal political exile from the Malayan Archipelago who was banished with his entourage to the Cape Colony by the Dutch Colonialists in 1694, because he was a political trouble-maker, in that he was agitating for an end to Dutch colonial rule.

The Indians were either merchant class emigres from the sub-continent or indentured workers shipped from Tamil Nadu in India by the British to work on the sugar and other plantations, especially in the Natal. History indeed can be a great equaliser. Bur this depends on reclaiming the politics and the narrative of rugby. The historical evidence suggests that the Muslim Cape Malays took to rugby like a fish to water. Rugby matches in those days were like social events. The Cape Malay culture is vibrant and women have always participated fully in community life, even as rugby spectators.

In fact, it was the Cape Malays who founded the Western Province Colored Rugby Union (WPCRU) way back in 1886, just three years after the whites-only Western Province Rugby Union was established. …