South African rugby’s race problems

What does the divergent fates of Springbok Eben Etzebeth and former coach Peter de Villiers say about the state of South African rugby?

A cardboard cutout inviting Springbok fans to pose with the likenesses of then-captain, John Smit, and national coach, Peter de Villiers. Image credit Warren Rohner via Flickr (CC).

It was a heartwarming moment. In June 2017, in the absence of injured Captain Warren Whitely, Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth was chosen to captain the team in the third rugby test against France, with a 35-12 Springbok victory. When he approached the microphone in the media center after the match, he said, unprompted: “Welcome to the best day of my life.”

Spend enough time paying attention to elite sport and you end up jaded. The players come across as automatons programmed to spew clichés and to avoid saying anything resembling human emotion. This was different. This was a young man who had been a Springbok for five years, who had grown up with dreams of Springbok glory, and who had achieved the ultimate honor of leading his team in a victory with the captain’s armband conferring on him a status that relatively few in the long history of Springbok rugby have attained.

Forget that Bok coach Allister Coetzee, only the second black national team coach, had inexplicably chosen Etzebeth to captain the squad against France rather than Siya Kolisi, Etzebeth’s teammate and captain at the Stormers, the Cape Town Super Rugby side. Forget that naming Kolisi captain would have made him the first black Springbok captain, representing a watershed moment in rugby history. Forget Etzebeth’s reputation as an occasional hothead, something customarily not suitable to the captain of a rugby squad, one of whose duties is to keep the calm among his teammates, and to be the interface between the referee and his teammates.

Forget all that. At that podium in Ellis Park Stadium, we were all reminded that these are human beings. We were reminded how much wearing that jersey and that armband means to these young men. We were reminded of children playing with friends in their back yards, announcing their own play like a television commenter, always the stars of their own dramas.

Yet that little bit of humanity, honest as it was, as much as I believe it to have been earnest and true, does not mean that we know Eben Etzebeth.

Human beings are complicated. They can get up in front of an assembled media horde and even a massive, world-class athlete can evoke childhood. But they can also find themselves accused of “racially abusing” a man, late on a Saturday night and into the small hours of Sunday morning, when they had already been involved in a fight outside of a bar in Langebaan in the Western Cape. Which is what Etzebeth is accused of doing in late August 2019.

It is an incident about which we know very, very little despite the passage of several weeks. It is an event about which we should know so much more. But it is an event about which one gets the sense that South Africa’s rugby potentates want to know as little as possible. There was a fight after a conflict in a bar. So far, run-of-the-mill stuff. But where it gets tricky is with the allegations that the fight was racially motivated, and that the racism came from Etzebeth’s camp, and according to some observers, likely from Etzebeth himself.

If Eben Etzebeth seems unknowable then Peter de Villiers, the former Springbok head coach and the first black person to hold that position, has made a life out of being completely, utterly, transparently knowable. Which, in its own way, paradoxically makes him nearly as inscrutable.

The Southern Kings’ search for a coach is revelatory in understanding how the South African rugby community consistently has undervalued, marginalized, and betrayed De Villiers. The Kings are a Port Elizabeth-based team that plays in Europe’s Pro-14 rugby league. Their dysfunctional process of searching for a coach was characterized by accusations that De Villiers did not have proper coaching certificates (this, the most serious of the accusations, proved to be false); that he thought the Kings’ job was his birthright; that the Kings’ hierarchy preferred a New Zealand coach; and by withdrawals from candidate after candidate, who looked at the processes governing the search in Port Elizabeth and saw an organization in disarray. Each new turn of events made clear just how much of a disaster that process had become. Fans of rugby in South Africa and its Eastern Province and Border regions, the Kings, and certainly Peter de Villiers deserved better.

Instead of showing a sense of entitlement, every indication was that De Villiers believed that the Kings were serious about finding the best coach. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that someone with a pedigree including (but hardly limited to) a Tri-Nations title (the Springboks’ last win in any version of that competition prior to their 2019 victory in the Rugby Championship), a series victory over the British Lions (the only one for the Boks since they emerged from isolation), and a win against the All Blacks in Dunedin (the only time they have ever won in the legendary “House of Pain”), might just believe that he is indeed the best man for a domestic head coaching job in South Africa. His winning percentage during his tenure with the national team surpasses the overall win percentage of the Boks since their return from isolation in 1992. That De Villiers has many friends and advocates in the Eastern Cape, that he was clearly the best candidate on the issue of maximizing the Kings as a development center of excellence for diversity and transformation, and that he was passionate and outspoken should have been seen as manifest strengths. Instead, they were somehow turned into either weaknesses, or perhaps more puzzlingly, irrelevancies.

Can De Villiers be outspoken? Absolutely. Since when is outspokenness a problem in South African rugby culture? Will he ruffle feathers? Certainly. There are feathers that sometimes need to be ruffled, and those with feathers that don’t deserve a ruffling will survive. Will a De Villiers press conference or interview come with the occasional malapropism? More than likely, the man is not a robot. Little is more endearing than a bit of humanity among the ranks of coaches who increasingly speak from empty, tedious, monotonous talking points, and for whom spontaneity sometimes seems as much of a sin as handling errors and missed tackles.

It seems clear that De Villiers, quite clearly the peoples’ choice for the Kings’ job, earned some enemies who decided that they could not beat him by playing fairly. They chose to try to win through innuendo about his coaching credentials, and a smear campaign about a belief in a birthright to a coaching position that he never expressed. Did these calumnies come from within the search panel? Did they come from allies of the other candidates? We will likely never know—that is at least part of the problem of anonymous allegations passed via whisper (a standard in South African sports media), sent via emails to friendly or ambitious journalists, and dispersed as if by the wind. They are easy to disseminate. They are a lot harder to contain and to counter, precisely because the gutlessness of the dissemination makes them so amorphous.

Perhaps De Villiers was not the best choice for the Kings, though it is difficult to see why a successful South African head coach at the highest levels is not more qualified, or at least a better fit for the job than someone who has never been a head coach at any level. Perhaps there is a reason why the most persistent issues with De Villiers’ candidacy have been expressed unattributed and without evidence or substantiation. But Occam’s razor—the idea that the simplest, most obvious answer is usually the correct one—applies here. And, Occam’s razor would indicate that when the question is between Peter de Villiers’ competence and qualifications for the job versus Eastern Province Rugby’s competence and qualifications, well, one need not be a historian of the recent past to understand that the shortcomings of Eastern Province Rugby is probably the winning answer even if everyone ends up as a loser.

This long diversion serves a larger purpose: De Villiers has long been outspoken in South African rugby circles. His outspokenness was likely the reason why he was sent into the wilderness after being released from his Springbok coaching duties in 2011, his post-Bok jobs hardly matching what should have been his exalted status, even after his firing. (His last job was as national coach of Zimbabwe, hardly a rugby power.) He should have had a position like the Kings’ job long ago. It is hard to come up with a reason, beyond that outspokenness, for De Villiers’ imposed isolation from the game he loves.

Well, there is one reason—and that is that De Villiers has been most outspoken, most consistently vocal, on the issue of race.

It is within the context of De Villiers’ mistreatment—during the Southern Kings’ search and from the country’s journalists—that a new controversy surrounding De Villiers should be assessed. The perhaps disgruntled former Springbok coach recently announced that he would not support the Boks in the 2019 World Cup in Japan, as long as Etzebeth is on the squad and allegations of racism hang over him. This is a very strong take, but it is not an irrational or unjustifiable one.

The demand to recall Etzebeth has not gained much traction. The South African Human Rights Commission has been investigating the event. Police and prosecutors too are still determining whether there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges. South African Rugby has been by and large silent.

Perhaps one believes that Etzebeth deserves the benefit of the doubt. There is certainly merit to the argument that he, like any citizen in South Africa, is innocent until proven guilty. But the South African Rugby Union (SARU), the body that controls rugby, is not a court of law, nor is it a governmental body. It could have conducted a thorough investigation to find out some approximation of the truth, and it could have gone a long way to help answer those questions that still linger. Although SARU (also known as SA Rugby) is not a governmental body, it has consistently presented itself as a tool of nation building and as a symbol of national transformation. Yet, the reality has always been more complicated. The truth is that the officials who have benefited from the Rainbow Nation, the Amaboko-boko narrative, have done so on a surface level. And often, rugby has been a source of conflict as much as of healing.

Consider this brief, episodic, and far from complete history of racist tempests surrounding Springbok rugby:

From the early (and in the minds of many, premature) readmission of the Springboks to international play in 1992, too many white supporters insisted on public displays of white and especially Afrikaner nationalism at Springbok matches. After the ANC victory in the 1994 elections and the adoption of the new South African flag and national anthem, intransigent white fans insisted upon waving the old flag at matches and singing only the elements of the new anthem drawn from “Die Stem” (the Afrikaans portions of the old national anthem was included in the new one as an act of reconciliation and was, in the minds of many, unearned). Even today at Springbok matches, vast swathes of the disproportionately white crowds at Springbok matches bellow out the Afrikaans parts far louder than the rest of the song.

Racial incidents have followed Springbok rugby like a stench, and the 1995 World Cup victory with all of its Rainbow Nation pretensions, hardly proved to be a panacea. In 1997 Andre Markgraaf, who had been appointed Springbok coach in July 1996, resigned after a tape aired on national television in which he referred to black rugby officials and politicians as “fucking Kaffirs.” It was especially rich when he claimed to resign, in part, in the interest of national reconciliation.

Just over a year later, Springbok prop Toks van der Linde was in New Zealand with the Western Province Stormers when his group was approached by an excited Black South African expatriate in Christchurch. Van der Linde berated her and called her a “Kaffir.” He was fined and given a six-month suspension by South African Rugby, with all but a month of the suspension suspended, meaning he would be eligible to play almost immediately. The decision was met with outrage, rightfully, in no small part because the South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU as SARU was then known) honestly believed and publicly asserted that their decision would serve as a deterrent to further acts of racism.

In August 2003, Geo Cronje, a lock who represented Northern Transvaal and has recently made his test debut against New Zealand, was thrown out of the World Cup training squad. He had refused to room or share a shower or toilet facilities with fellow lock Quinton Davids. Initially Rudolph Streuli, the Springbok coach and a former Northern Transvaal player himself, ordered Cronje and Davids to hash out their differences, but officials soon realized this solution was insufficient and decided to send Cronje home.

None of this takes into account the myriad assertions of a pernicious atmosphere of racism expressed by former black Springboks and others within the South African rugby hierarchy. After his retirement Chester Williams recounted myriad instances of racism within South African rugby, including in the vaunted 1995 World Cup winning team that allegedly brought South Africans of all races together. Peter de Villiers has a long and credible list of incidents and arguments about systemic racism in South African rugby circles. In 2000 SARFU’s black president Silas Nkanunu claimed that racism was behind alleged failed plots to oust him. And in 2018 former Springbok wing Ashwin Willemse, tired of what he believed to be racist undertones at satellite sports network Supersport, where he worked as a studio analyst, walked off the set rather than deal with what he felt was patronizing, condescending behavior from two colleagues. Those colleagues were Naas Botha and Nick Mallet, both who had made their reputations playing all-white rugby under apartheid. (Mallett was also one of the most successful of the post-isolation Springbok coaches, overseeing the Boks from 1997-2000.) These examples, perhaps more prominent than most, hardly seem to be outliers.

In what many believe to have been the most arrogant act on the part of SA Rugby officials, President Nelson Mandela was dragged before the country’s High Court in 1998 to justify his decision to establish a commission of inquiry to look into racism in South African rugby. On the stand he justified the decision for the simple reason that he believed there was racism (and nepotism) in the country’s rugby hierarchies. The decision to confront Mandela backfired in most circles, but in a sense the rugby leadership cared less about the court of public opinion, or the High Court for that matter, than in its own rather smaller white and especially Afrikaans constituency that was happy to see the attempted humiliation of Mandela. The very figure, who had almost single-handedly provided cover for the legitimacy of South African rugby beyond the laager just three years earlier through his strategic embrace of the Boks, became a target of the ire of some of the sport’s leadership when he would no longer carry their water.

On the eve of the last World Cup in England in 2015, Oregan Hoskins, president of SARU (and a long-time antagonist of Peter de Villiers) claimed that racism in the sport in South Africa was a thing of the past. Hoskins, who is coloured and who does deserve credit for making racial inclusion a central platform of his leadership during his 2006 to 2016 tenure, asserted, “Let us get one thing absolutely clear: our sport is massively transformed from where it was in 1992. The idea of an ‘exclusive’, ‘white-dominated’ game is frankly laughable.” Of course, there is a long gap between the sport having changed a great deal since 1992—it has, unquestionably—and racism being eradicated. As if in response to Hoskins’ selective reading of the recent past, in April 2016 ANC Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, decided to get tough on rugby, along with three other sports codes, for its lack of progress in achieving racial transformation not only on the playing fields, but also in its higher structures.

It sometimes seems that Afrikaners and Coloured South Africans are, to steal from Winston Churchill, two people separated by a common language. Etzebeth, or perhaps one or more of his mates, allegedly called a coloured bar patron a “Hottentot,” or a “hotnot,” language that euphemistically might be referred to as “racially charged,” but given South African history and politics is simply racist. No one using the term would be unaware of its inflammatory nature, any more than a white South African using the K-word or a white American using the N-word would.

And yet, Etzebeth has been found guilty of nothing.

It seems that SARU has dragged its feet on its investigations, quite likely out of self-interest. Most observers would also probably be uncomfortable with a rugby governing body acting as police, prosecutor, judge, and executioner. Though no one is asking SARU to arrest, convict, or sentence the giant and occasionally irascible lock, they are looking for an honest investigation of grave allegations. Such allegations have been a consistent theme in South African rugby throughout the entirety of the history of the sport in the country. South Africans are asking the rugby hierarchy to take allegations of racism seriously and to follow the accusations wherever they lead. If they lead to a one-way ticket back to South Africa for Etzebeth, so be it. If they end up with Etzebeth helping lead the Springboks in Japan, well, critics will have to live with that result as well.

At the same time, Peter de Villiers deserves to be taken seriously. He has been treated as a punch line too often by too many. He has seen South African rugby from the inside, and so many of the accusations he has levied in the past have been confirmed through similar instances. The outspoken former man-in-charge makes some people in South African rugby circles uncomfortable, but maybe comfort has reigned for too long in the office suites at SARU House.

Occam’s razor does not only apply at the provincial levels when it comes to South African rugby. South African Rugby knows as much—otherwise why would they have kicked off a highly publicized campaign against discrimination and racism to coincide with this year’s Rugby Championship? The simplest answer is that racism in the sport is not simply a thing of the past. Unless, of course, the anti-racism campaign was simply a form of window dressing, a cynical gesture aimed at public relations more than at addressing real, deep, and systemic racism in South African rugby. If so, a perfunctory wait-and-see approach to the allegations against Etzebeth would make perfect sense.

The reality is that racism still swirls around some circles of the “ruffians’ game played by gentlemen.” And, that will be the case in spite of whatever decisions are made regarding Eben Etzebeth, who once, not so long ago, experienced the best day of his life.

Further Reading