‘More than just rugby’: championship generates harmony in South Africa | ET REALITY


The imposing room resonated with the euphoria of a nation where everyone seemed, for the moment, to have left their differences behind.

Celebrants spoke Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Afrikaans and English. They were black and white, young and old, mining company managers and restaurant waitresses.

They sang and danced together to songs blaring from the speakers. South African flags waved. They wore the same green and gold attire as their rugby heroes as they gathered at Johannesburg’s Oliver Reginald Tambo Airport on Tuesday to welcome the team home after the French championship match. A bronze statue of Tambo with one hand raised stood amid the jubilation, as if he gave his blessing to a scene made possible by the work he did to overthrow apartheid.

South Africa last week became the winningest country in the relatively short history of the Rugby World Cup, claiming its second consecutive crown and fourth overall. This nation of 60 million people has gone crazy ever since.

The revelry will reach its peak over the next four days when the team begins a tour of the country, starting with parades through Pretoria, the executive capital, and Johannesburg on Thursday.

“Unity,” is how Maureen Mampuru, 43, black, described the impact of the victory for the country, a description echoed by Martin Peens, 60, white; Jacqui Vermaak, 56, white; Happy Mthethwa, 40 years old and black; Michelle Volny, 43, white; and Gloria Leshilo, 34 years old and black.

The 2009 Hollywood blockbuster “Invictus” told the story of South Africa’s first Rugby World Cup victory in 1995, just a year into democracy, and how it unified a racially divided nation. At the time, I attributed all the racial harmony the film portrayed to Hollywood romanticism. I thought there was no way a rugby victory would have had any real impact on the racial divide in a country that had just emerged from decades of legalized racism.

But I’ve lived in South Africa for the past two years and experienced the thrill of watching the Springboks, as the team is called, win a world championship while cheering along with the country’s rugby-obsessed population.

I can report that the harmony produced by the success of the World Cup is not exaggerated.

When the final whistle blew last Saturday, and South Africa had claimed a tense 12-11 victory over New Zealand, celebrations erupted across the spectrum of modern-day South Africa: from bars in the somewhat gritty townships of Soweto to the open-air square in a posh Pretoria shopping center to the bar where I watched the game in an affluent northern suburb of Johannesburg.

There, the black and white fans enjoyed the victory together. Some hugged each other. Others shouted a popular Zulu song sung at sporting events: “They’ve never seen one like him!”

“I’m reliving ’95,” Francois Pienaar, who captained the 1995 South African team, said in a telephone interview. For years, the national rugby team, by design of the apartheid government, had been seen as the exclusive domain of the minority. white of the country. But 1995 was the first time black fans gathered en masse around the team.

“It’s about more than just rugby,” Pienaar said. “It’s about a nation. It’s about hope. “It is about building a future for everyone in our country.”

At the airport on Tuesday, a white family held up a sign that read: “Siya for President,” a reference to Siya Kolisi, whose life reflects freedoms once unavailable to black South Africans. He is the first black captain of the national rugby team, he is in an interracial marriage and, after the victory, posted a video on Instagram of him and several white teammates singing a popular Zulu chant that essentially says they are brothers.

That kind of coming together, especially around race, was similar to the 1995 John Carlin, the author of “Playing the enemy” the book that inspired the movie “Invictus,” he said in an interview. That World Cup was basically the first time that black and white South Africans “were united in purpose and goal,” she said, adding that “it was amazing to behold.”

But there are crucial differences between 1995 and now.

Back then, many South Africans were brimming with hope that under a new democracy and a new president, Nelson Mandela, they could achieve shared success.

“Winning the cup in 1995 set the stamp that we can work together if we listen to each other,” said Mampuru, who works as an administrator for a political party. “If we respect each other, we can do much more together as one.”

Now, however, the population has had time to assimilate the numerous failures of the democratic promise of recent decades. Corruption, poor leadership and entrenched disparities from the apartheid era have left the country struggling with many crises. Electricity is not reliable. Unemployment and crime rates are high. Race continues to determine where many people live and their experiences in school.

The country’s problems are so enormous that, for many, this Springbok victory seems like a much-needed escape and has inspired celebrations that many believe are more intense than ever.

After watching the game at the bar, I rolled down the windows of my car and drove slowly down a busy street on my way home late at night. Fans crowded both sides, wielding phones to capture the moment. All surveillance warnings about vehicle or mobile phone theft had apparently been forgotten. Everything felt comfortable.

“We really hope this doesn’t end with a little celebration for a week,” Kolisi, the team captain, said after landing in South Africa. “He needs to do more.”

The ruling African National Congress, a once-vaunted liberation movement that has shouldered much of the blame for South Africa’s current struggles, wasted no time trying to capitalize politically on the victory ahead of next year’s national elections.

The morning after the victory, the ANC issued a statement congratulating the team and applauding “the pioneering leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa”. Fikile Mbalula, a senior ANC official, wrote on Twitter that Mr Ramaphosa was the only “two-time Rugby World Cup winning president”. Ramaphosa gave a nationally televised prime-time speech on Monday in which he congratulated the Springboks before going through a long list of his government’s achievements and then declaring December 15 a public holiday.

However, no amount of enthusiasm or pat on the back can hide the cold reality of South Africa’s challenges.

The day after the final, power outages to relieve the overstretched power grid returned for the first time in 10 days and have been repeated every day since. Four days after the game, the country’s finance minister delivered a grim budget report that foreshadowed difficult spending cuts.

When I asked a security guard in my neighborhood if he had seen the game, he flashed an exasperated smile. His neighborhood in a predominantly black township had been without power for two weeks, so she could only listen on his phone. But he ignored him. South Africa was number one in the world in something and that made him happy.

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