Monday, November 10, 2003

To any regular readers (namely you Andrew) my apologies for a week of silence. I had a lot of work last week and wasn't able to set aside time to blog. But I'm back and thought I'd start off with some reflections on South Africa's abysmal exit to the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup. To any non-South African readers, discussing sport might seem odd in a blog primarily devoted to politics and culture. For better or for worse, however, sport is an integral part of the South African national psyche. When South Africa won the World Cup in 1995, and Nelson Mandela presented the trophy, it was seen as a seminal moment in the process of building a new South African nation, akin to a united Germany winning the football world cup in 1990. Hell, even JM Coetzee has written on rugby; I can too. And, to any South African readers, I'm no expert on rugby so what I'm about to say is liable to be fairly impressionistic. Any feedback would, therefore, be much appreciated.

So, whence the dramatic decline of the Springboks? After all, the team won in 1995, narrowly lost a semi-final to Australia (the eventual winners) in 1999, and, this year, was humiliated in the quarter-finals. If the team continues to follow this trajectory, they won't make the last eight in 2007. What explains this?

Firstly, an obvious problem is the number of players leaving the country. Increasingly, talented players are choosing the move overseas and play their rugby for clubs in England, France and Italy. I'm even told -- and I hope this isn't true -- that half the current team are liable to leave now that the World Cup is wrapped up. Their reasons are, apparently, the reasons given by so many white South Africans who've chosen to leave since 1994 -- better security, financial and otherwise. Added to this, SARFU (the South African Rugby Football Union) has a policy of not selecting players based outside South Africa. Their aim, they say, is to foster the game domestically. The result, of course, is a constantly shrinking pool of talent from which to choose.

Why, for the benefit of non South Africans, should this be seen as an issue of national importance? Largely, because of its symbolic value. Decline in a national sports team is taken to reflect a broader cultural mailaise -- it suggests that many would rather opt out of the inclusive dynamic South Africa embodied by Mandela and the world cup victory in 1995. It suggests that South Africa is a place where many would rather not be.

Secondly, there's no doubt that many of the famous South African teams of the past were primarily motivated by Afrikaner nationalism, which was itself a reflection of apartheid. Afrikaners had a point to prove to the world, and one place to do so was on the rugby field. Now that apartheid is over, and a new South African nation is in the process of formation, many (white) players seem to lack the impetus that they once had. To me, most of the team simply looked demotivated and listless on Saturday. Again, this seems to reflect an unpleasant truth; many whites don't identify themselves as part of the new South Africa. Given the choice, they'd rather play for London Irish. There's no new sense of nationhood to replace the one of old.

Thirdly, there's no doubt that there are fundamental racial problems in South African rugby. Here, once again, I must rely on my 'sources' (ie people I've chatted to around Oxford). I'm told, for instance, that the most important quality in a South African rugby captain is that he should be able to mediate between the English and Afrikaans factions in the team. When I heard this my first thought was, if these guys are still dealing with the Boer War (over 100 years ago), how on earth are they going to adjust to inclusion of players of colour in the team? Probably, not at all. I'm also told by fellow South African Quentin Williams, who plays rugby in the Western Cape, and who happens to be of mixed-race descent, that discrimination is a real problem at all levels. For instance, he cited practices such as white teams colluding to ensure that mixed-race teams are relegated.

So, if all of this is correct, the selectors are choosing the national team from an ever-dwindling pool of demotivated white players; hence, the decline of the Springboks. The more difficult question, of course, is what's to be done. Regarding the issue of players moving overseas, my own view is that SARFU should simply regard them as eligible for selection. Rugby is a professional sport in a globalised world. National football sides have selected players based overseas for years now (I'm sure that teams such as Brazil and Argentina would be shadows of their normal selves if they relied solely upon players based internally). Similar developments are inevitable in rugby. I can appreciate that SARFU wants to foster the game internally, but South African rugby is unlikely to flourish if the national team continues to perform as poorly as they have. As for the question of racism, this raises more difficult questions, not only regarding the extent of the problem, but also what's to be done about it. A Commission has been established under Judge Edwin King to investigate this issue, and it would perhaps be wise to await his findings.

In the meantime, for the remainder of the World Cup, I've decided to switch my allegiance to France (largely to annoy the assorted anglophiles and embittered post-Gulf War Americans who surround me...)

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