Field of Broken Dreams


By Vivienne Walt Paris


Time South Pacific (Australia/New Zealand edition), 9/24/2007



South Africa might just win the Rugby World Cup, but issues of race still haunt its team


In one sense South Africa's Springboks may fulfil their promise gloriously in this year's Rugby World Cup. At the Parc des Princes in Paris on Sept. 9, they trounced Samoa by the withering score of 59-7. Their star black player, Bryan Habana, scored four tries, fueling hopes that the team might triumph over England on Sept. 14 and ultimately make it to the final on Oct. 20.

Yet South African rugby has another promise to keep, and victory alone won't do it. The Springboks were once among the most powerful symbols of the nation's apartheid regime and a prime target of the international sports boycott aimed at ending white rule. Then, in 1995, one year after Nelson Mandela's election as President inaugurated democratic majority rule, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup--and won. As tens of thousands of fans--almost all of them white--erupted in the stands, Mandela donned a Springbok jersey and went onto the field to hug the team's captain. For many, this historic embrace symbolized white acceptance of the new order. Apartheid, it seemed, was finally dead.

But twelve years later, South Africa's team looks much like it did right after apartheid's collapse. In a country where black people make up 80% of the population, the 30-man rugby squad includes just six players of color--only one more than it took to the 2003 World Cup in Australia, in the build-up to which a white Springbok player notoriously refused to room with a black teammate. And only two blacks started the game against Samoa. Zola Yeye, who last year became the first black team manager in the Springboks' 101-year history, says the team's racial makeup is an "indictment" of South African rugby and reveals "a lot of resistance" to integration.

That is a deeply uncomfortable legacy for South Africa, whose white population treats rugby with the reverence that Brazilians reserve for soccer. For years, the national rugby system was tightly interwoven with the institutions of apartheid; its players and administrators were nurtured in the same educational establishments from which the regime recruited its leaders. The Afrikaner Broederbond (Brotherhood), a secretive power elite that ran the country's key institutions, helped choose Springbok rugby captains just as they chose military commanders and Prime Ministers. "Rugby was always seen as apartheid at play," says Andy Colquhoun, a leading South African rugby commentator. Even now, he adds, "it is a crucial part of the white psyche."

The racial makeup of the current Springbok squad sparked weeks of anguish among politicians back home, concerned about the image it projects to the world, but divided over how to address the problem. Despite the government's upbeat post-apartheid "rainbow nation" theme, official statistics underscore the persistence of harsh inequalities: last year more than 60% of black South Africans scraped by on less than $100 a month, up from 50% in 1996. By contrast, only 4% of whites earn that little. "At the very top there is a lot of integration," says Frans Cronjé, head of development for the South African Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg. "But at the bottom it is a different picture."

To be sure, rugby has never been the first-choice game among the black majority. "You can tell a mostly white high school when you drive by its rugby field," Cronjé says. "Black schools have soccer fields." Nonetheless, government officials have pushed for years to get more blacks on the Springbok team. Rugby clubs say there is little black talent to recruit for world-class tournaments--a reflection, in part, of the fact that few black students can afford to attend the elite high schools that groom most of the country's rugby stars. Springbok manager Yeye faults the white-dominated club and provincial level rugby system for failing to promote black players. "We've got 40 million blacks at home," he says, "and I've got only six of them in the squad."

This year's World Cup may be the last time the Springboks field so many whites. South African politicians have warned that future teams will have to integrate more, even at the expense of winning. Ultimately, says Yeye, quotas might be the only way to alter the Springboks' racial mix. Yet he concedes that even black players don't like that idea, since they fear they will be seen as token add-ons.

In the meantime, the team takes to the field with the blessing of its most famous fan: Mandela. He came to Paris to root for the Springboks and to accept from the International Rugby Board a crystal rugby ball bearing the inscription: "For what you have done during the 1995 World Cup to unite your nation under the banner of rugby." Much is left for others to do to live up to that daunting promise.

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