Abnormal rugby in an abnormal society

The British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, in the middle of a pandemic, exposes the professional sports system for what it is.

Cape Town Stadium, where all three tests between the British and Irish Lions and the Springboks will be played without fans. Photo: Warrenski, via Flickr CC.

A friend of mine asked me recently why I had not objected to the current British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa. He was of course referring to the petition and letter of objection—objecting to South Africa’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup—that I had sent to World Rugby (the body that runs international test rugby) and every single affiliated rugby body I could get contact details for. In the end, the SA Rugby (SARU) bid was unsuccessful, and France got the nod for the 2023 tournament.

I did not bother too much with the British and Irish Lions tour because I strongly suspected that SA Rugby would require the same leeway in terms of game time as they had needed for the 2020 Rugby Championship—and that they would therefore call off the tour, especially in the face of the COVID-19 scourge. I was wrong: the excuses and flip-flopping by the world champions during the 2020 season had passed their sell-by date, and the Springboks were ready to show the world why they are world champions.

This year—2021—is also a significant year in the Springbok calendar, as it celebrates 130 years of international test rugby. Ninety of those years, however, totally excluded “black” intrusion, until Errol Tobias gave “legitimacy” to the bok jersey in 1981 (during a tour of New Zealand and the United States). It is also the 40th anniversary of the last time the Springboks played the New Zealand Mäori. The Polynesian tribe from Aotearoa visited South Africa in 1993–4 as participants in the M-Net Nite series and never toured the Republic of South Africa again. Ironically, the puritan souls at SARU dismissed the team as being “racially selected,” an idea and policy so abhorrent that no matches between the New Zealand Mäori and South African sides may take place under SARU’s watch or with their sanction. At the time, Jurie Roux, the chief executive officer of SARU, said that the Springboks do not play against teams selected on “race.” Instead, SARU merely honors the racist history and legacy of “the most valuable brand in sports.” 

The Springboks are shielded by the broad and wide shadow of Nelson Mandela, who, together with the ANC (and with the aid of the National Party), sold South Africa’s social structures for the right to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup and for “black” South Africans’ freedom to proudly wear the distasteful green and gold mantle. All social structures in sports were completely destroyed, simultaneously obliterating the lines of communication to communities affected by poverty. Under apartheid, the localized structures in sport, arts, culture, education, and politics directed the energies of the poor into more positive—albeit revolutionary—pursuits. Sports formed an integral part of the political educational framework—there were no childish illusions of “keeping politics out of sports.”

Rassie Erasmus, coach of the 2019 world championship team (and now SARU director) and his world champions toured South Africa in 2019, after his impassioned speech about the “real issues facing the country” inspired the Springboks to their third World Cup triumph. The very issues he swore about—and cried tearfully about in the Disney-esque “documentary” series Chasing the Sun—have not disappeared. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn back the veil that Springbok achievements on the field have deflected attention away from for so long. 

The social conditions that separate South Africans into camps of hope and hopelessness are the very conditions that favor the Springboks currently and historically. In sporting terms, things have improved for the sporting brand of racism and apartheid, and have regressed to the point of nonexistence for the sporting structures that opposed apartheid through sports. The sham of including “black” rugby icons in the Springbok rugby museum had a very short life, because it tried to knock “black” pegs into green holes. This sham was preceded by a period of “honoring” the victims of apartheid with the colours of apartheid and racism, through the awarding of Springbok colors to them. In the spirit of the Errol Tobias era, this was a process of legitimizing the Springbok brand. With Siya Kolisi as the face of this appalling brand, nobody will dare probe the uncomfortable dark corners of bok history, especially now that JZ (not that one, the other one) has bought into the mighty bokke through endorsement deals with prominent players.

Now, as smoke billows from Kwazulu Natal and Gauteng, the British and Irish Lions continue their tradition of ignoring the acrid odor, focusing on scrums and line-out drills while their opponents smash scrum machines and treadmills. Tackling bags, kicking tees, and heated jacuzzis dull the moral senses of an elite group of people who play for prestige and money and nothing else. And the flags that are waving in support fan the flames of a rapidly unfolding disaster.

I did not bother objecting to the British and Irish Lions tour because I knew that it would expose the system for what it is. There can be no normal sports in an abnormal society. Even if Rassie cries those Hollywood tears over social conditions, those tears are for the rugby Oscars—not for the people.

This country is in very deep trouble, and it is bound into the system of inequality that people celebrate through the Springboks.

I told you so.

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