Week in Review

The grim reality of the Springboks’ wonderful World Cup victory

Nearly two and half decades after Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar stood shoulder-to-shoulder in triumph, South Africa delivered another poignant sporting moment for the world to ponder.   

Watching Siya Kolisi joyously hold the Rugby World Cup aloft, it was impossible not to think: "Let’s hope this isn’t another Barack Obama moment."

That’s terribly sad.

A black Springbok captain hoisting the World Cup simply had to be a moment in time that screamed ‘progress’ for the human race. Tragically, it was more a reminder that progression isn’t a guaranteed consequence of change.

If ever there was a day that was meant to signal human progress, then it was November 4, 2008 – the day Obama defeated John McCain to become the first black president of a nation that, despite numerous shortcomings, had long assumed possession of the world’s moral compass.

Coming 143 years after the United States abolished slavery and 43 years after the Voting Rights Act gave credence to the 15th amendment that empowered African Americans to vote, Obama’s election was a sign that, although painfully slow, the progress of human enlightenment was in fact inevitable.

We might not have been there quite yet, but a post-racial utopia was at least poking its head above the horizon. Another decade or so of progress and, well, oh boy.

Events in America - and, still scarcely believably, at home, have shaken even the most optimistic of souls.

White supremacy, in all its dim-wittedness, is more prevalent now than it was pre-Obama.

While it is desperately tempting to view Kolisi’s - and South Africa’s - moment as another giant stride towards a more enlightened humanity, doing so requires a degree of reality suspension.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Obama’s election and subsequent presidential tenure did more to fan the flames of racial disharmony than it did to douse them. Two steps forward may have been taken, but it feels like the planet has been hurtling backwards ever since.

We can but hope that Kolisi’s beautiful moment in history isn’t followed by a similar retrenchment.

Sadly, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that it will be. Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus summed up the grim reality of South African life with his post-match observation that pressure was having a close relative murdered.

Statistics released in 2018 highlighted 21,022 murders in South Africa over a 12-month period. That’s 58 per day. The number of serious sexual assaults and rapes was double that.

When those numbers were widely reported, a fair bit of the reporting focused on debunking the myth of a genocide being inflicted upon the nation’s white farmers. Much was made of the fact that just 62 murders occurred on farms, with only 46 of the victims white.

Only?

The total number of murders in New Zealand in 2017 was 35 (‘was’ because that number does tend to change following police investigations).

It’s simply not possible to comprehend 62 farmers being murdered in New Zealand, let alone considering that number to be low.

The reality is that much of South African life is incomprehensible to New Zealanders. But what most of us do understand from the large numbers of South Africans escaping here is that they are primarily driven by a fear of violence.

In 1995, Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar stood beside each other in a moment that signified, if not perhaps unity, then at the very least the prospect of racial tolerance in a nation emerging from Apartheid.

Pienaar’s champion team contained just one non-white player, the late wing Chester Williams.

Just over 24 years later, the Springboks’ first black captain led a squad containing 12 non-white players.

Progress, certainly.

But progress on the sports field hasn’t necessarily been matched off it.

A report from the World Bank in 2018 revealed that South Africa is the most financially unequal country in the world with the vast majority of the nation’s wealth still held by the white minority.

Kolisi himself grew up in the impoverished township of Zwide near Port Elizabeth. His abiding memory of childhood was that he was always hungry as the family didn’t have enough food.

Rugby may have provided a pathway out of poverty for Kolisi and some of his team mates, but that clearly hasn’t been the experience of millions of their countrymen.

"I'm just really happy I'm Springbok captain,” was Kolisi’s response when asked for his thoughts on being the Springboks’ first black captain.

“It's a huge privilege as it is, and for anybody who comes from my community, or any community, I just want to represent all of them.”

In that, he has undoubtedly succeeded. A truly great rugby nation, South Africa once again reigns proudly as a world champion. But the uncomfortable truth is that many South Africans will believe the Springboks’ success has come despite having a black captain rather than because of it.

"We hope that we've made the people of South Africa proud and we hope this will bring a change in mindset in the way we've carried ourselves - to every single person, not just leadership but all South Africans in general,” Kolisi said.

It would be wonderful to think that really would be the case. But the grim reality is that these moments in time that seem to signify so much often end up changing very little.

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