The South African Rugby team, nicknamed Springboks, are chasing their third world title at the ongoing Rugby World Cup. Despite shocking loss to Japan in their first game, Springboks are still considered among the strongest teams of the tournament.
Yet not every South African celebrate when their rugby team wins. Some of them go as far as supporting the opponents of Springboks. The reason is evident when you look at the racial composition of the team, which has earned the negative nickname “All-Whites”.
They may see the team as a remnant of apartheid era, and as a symbol of society ruled by the white. These tensions are portrayed in the excellent Clint Eastwood directed movie “Invictus” about South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup home in 1995, soon after Apartheid was abolished. It is 20 year since South Africa won their first World Cup, featuring just one black player. The number of non-white players in the national team has increased only slowly since then, and those who make the team tend to have bench-warmer roles.
The “whiteness” of Springboks is a reflection of South African society, where upper and middle class are still largely white. It is schools where South African kids start playing rugby. White children mostly attend “better” schools, that offer good training opportunities to prospective rugby players. Lower status schools, where the bulk of black kids end up, don’t have rugby teams. This inevitably limits the number of rugby players coming from these communities.
If black players still struggle to enter the 15s team, they’ve had better luck with the rugby sevens team. While the majority of sevens players are white, their black players have attained important roles (eg. Cecil Afrika, Seabelo Senatla). They will likely play at the Olympics next year, where rugby sevens is competed for the first time. Also noteworthy is the comparatively high number of black players in South African women’s rugby squad.
The rugby fraternity in South Africa cannot be said to be racist, except some individuals. But is enough done to actively introduce rugby to lower class communities? Probably not. Increased involvement of blacks would eventually provide Springboks a larger pool of quality players. Rugby could also be a way to help players out of poverty, either by providing them opportunities to play professionally, or indirectly by allowing them to interact with those of more prosperous background.
The issue of quotas for non-white player at various levels of South African rugby is hotly debated. Some people say player selection should be made purely based on skills and performance. Others believe this is where non-white players get discriminated, and say quotas are necessary to provide black players opportunity to develop themselves and prove their abilities.
Namibia is the other African team competing at the World Cup this year, but have an almost “all-white” squad. As Namibia is playing their fifth World Cup, never winning a game, they desperately need involvement of native Namibians to proliferate their thin selection of players.
Zimbabwe featured at the first two World Cups (1987 and 1991), having almost “all-white” squads. However, in recent years has seen most players have been ethnic Africans. This is probably affected by the exodus of Zimbabwean whites, which has not necessarily benefited Zimbabwean rugby.
Kenya has seen a major transformation since the late 70’s when black players started featuring in the game, which is nowadays essentially indigenous. The Kenyan sevens team is a success story and good example how a black African team can perform well at the world stage.
South African rugby team has been the best performing sports team in the entire African continent, something all South Africans should be proud of. But success is only part of the story, the team must also adequately represent the entire nation. This can be achieved, but only if there is enough will. Emphasis should be brought to facilitate black players entering the sport, while black parents should not hesitate sending their children to play rugby. Then over time, which may take decades, the Springboks team could be looking very different from what is it now, yet playing better rugby than ever.