Seven seconds passed between Siya Kolisi lifting the Webb Ellis Cup and South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa taking it from him. At the time it barely registered. In that euphoric moment, who exactly had their hands on rugby’s greatest prize was of little concern to Springboks supporters. All that mattered was that it was heading home to join three of its siblings in the trophy cabinet.
But as the potent cocktail of relief and joy has largely worn off, as cloudy hangovers have parted and the afterglow of that glorious night in Paris has subsided, a lingering aftertaste has remained. To be sure, the prevailing sense is one of sweet celebration, but in the back near the molars it’s hard to ignore something far more bitter.
Just what was Ramaphosa doing there? In truth it’s painfully obvious. He was after something that might be called a ‘Nelson Mandela moment’. When the Springboks won their first World Cup 28 years ago, the former president of the country handed the victorious captain Francois Pienaar the glittering golden cup. He thanked the Boks skipper for what he’d done for the country and then stepped aside. He never raised the trophy himself. He understood that this moment, though paved by his sacrifice and hard work, was not about him.
The Springbok emblem has come under fire from radical politicians back in South Africa who have rightly pointed out that the leaping antelope was once a muscular totem of the apartheid regime. These outspoken voices have called for the emblem to be banned and have pledged that should they ever come to power they’ll force the team to play under a new badge and in different colours.
What they fail to recognise is that symbols are in a constant state of flux. They evolve and adapt over time. The Springbok was once unquestionably a source of great shame for the country and represented everything that was broken in South Africa. But who could watch the scenes from the nationwide bus parade and make that argument today? South Africans of all races, who speak a mix of 12 languages and have roots in dozens of tribes, ethnicities and religions all came together to cheer for Kolisi and his diverse team. They are the result of what is possible when a fractured land pulls together.
Ramaphosa, so bereft of the grace and humility shown by Mandela nearly three decades ago, knows this which is why he was so desperate to place himself front and centre on that podium. By snatching the trophy away from Kolisi and hoisting it aloft himself before any other Springbok coach or player had the chance to hold it was not only a shameless act of selfishness, it was an insidious ploy to tether his own failing brand to the one South African organisation that rises above all others on the world stage.
Sportswashing comes in many forms but the goal is the same. It is meant to act as a smokescreen to a government’s wrongdoings and shortcomings while distracting fans with goals, wickets, knockouts and tries. What’s worse is that it works. Throughout history, from the ancient Romans to petrostates that are now consuming all of sport, the lure of bread and circuses have been too powerful to ignore.
South African rugby fans must not allow the greedy and corrupt politicians to steal this moment. They had nothing to do with the Springboks’ success and don’t deserve any of the attention or kudos for themselves.
Just this week two ANC officials from one of the country’s most poorly run provinces were seen fighting over the trophy, arguing over who got to lift it first. It was akin to watching two hyenas tussle over a carcass that they had no hand in killing. If these glory hunters were so desperate for adulation they should do their jobs and provide adequate service delivery and play a hand in turning around an economy that remains a heartbeat away from flatlining.
But this is not an appeal to the ANC or any of the country’s opposition parties who have failed to convince enough voters to expel a blatantly corrupt organisation from power. In truth there isn’t a single political body in the country that has earned as much love and support as the Springboks or that cuts across race and class the way the World Cup winners have. I’ve joked before that if Kolisi ran for a mayorship he’d sweep to a landslide victory. After the scenes of the past fortnight, that doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
And so rather than address those inept government leaders who continue to siphon every resource they can, or those radicals on the fringe who would warp a jubilant moment into something odious, this is an appeal to those who actually represent the country with distinction to do something tangible.
I don’t know where it would lead to but it could start with firm condemnation of Ramaphosa and everyone else who, like parasites, attached themselves to a triumph that wasn’t theirs. If a senior player or coach called out corruption and mismanagement or the failures of a state that now oversees a country with 33 per cent unemployment and the largest wealth inequality in the world, that would add significant weight into the political discourse.It wouldn’t be totally uncharted territory for some of them. Kolisi, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi have all used their platform to call for an end to gender-based violence and youth crime. Many others, including the retired World Cup-winning prop, Tendai Mtawarira, have established charitable organisations to combat the inequities around them. Going one step further would take this team to a new level of athlete activism and underline their own stated ambition to make a significant impact on all South Africans, not just those fortunate enough to watch them play.
Of course this carries a degree of risk and the blackballing of the American footballer Colin Kaepernick serves as a warning. But there are success stories to draw inspiration from and who could say if Kolisi won’t one day follow in the footsteps of Manny Pacquiao, George Weah, Imran Khan or David Pocock and become a bonafide statesman after retirement?
This could only happen with the support of the fans. A Springbok will only feel emboldened to stiff-arm an undeserving politician if he knew he had the support to do so. That’s where we come in.