Article by Richard Poplak
10 September 2015
Activists across the country are looking to boycott the coming South African World Cup team, transform the way rugby is organised, and field a rebel team of black players to rival the Springboks. It’s game on—and the most brutal battle may not be on the field.
So here’s a South African sports story for you: on Tuesday morning, I received a lengthy WhatsApp message from one of the founders of the Black First! Land First! Movement. It concerned nothing less than rugby. I guessed — correctly, as it turned out — that my interlocutor wasn’t interested in discussing the Springboks’ chances of winning the looming 2015 World Cup, to be played in the United Kingdom over the course of September and October. It turned out that he was hoping to discuss the Springboks’ chances of, well, looking a little more like a South African team, rather than the cast of a 70s-era frat house movie set in Alabama.
The message was sent by Andile Mngxitama, the Biko-ist co-founder of September National Imbizo, and former Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) MP turned-rebel-turned-punching-bag. Third time being the charm, Mngxitama has now helped conjure the Black First! Land First! (BFLF) Movement from a cohort of radicals who consider the EFF to be sellouts. (They cite Julius Malema’s speech to a gathering of farmers in Paarl, in which he stated that he would not nationalise productive farmland, as evidence of his willingness to bend before white capital.)
Titled ‘A Call to Boycott the Springboks’, the message was written by BFLF’s national spokespersons Zanele Lwana and Lindsay Maasdorp, and it did not include any suggestions on how to improve the ruck.
Perhaps a brief summary is in order. Back in the bad old days, the Springboks (more properly the South African union rugby team) were the pride of white chinas in general, and Afrikaner nationalists in particular. The game took off among the white population before the dust from the Great Trek had properly settled, and by World War I, this distant, dusty team was the mightiest on the planet. Many tests were won, but it seemed increasingly strange to the outside world that there were zero black players, which at the time they attributed to apartheid. In 1967, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union famously cancelled an All Blacks tour because Pretoria refused to allow Maori players to lace up. Following the Gleneagles Agreement of 1977, the Springboks were increasingly isolated by fellow members of the Commonwealth —an arrangement I suppose history will now deem the ‘first boycott’.
And so, in order to play in international competition again, the apartheid government handed over the keys of the Union Buildings to the African National Congress, and the Springboks — despite occasionally serving as 150kg roly-poly mascots for Rainbowism — have remained unmolested by the winds of change.
I may have mangled that last part of the history slightly, but that’s certainly how the BFLF anti-rugby folks would see it. To wit: “The Black First! Land First! Movement calls on all black South Africans (the so-called Black Africans, the so-called Coloureds and the so-called Indians) to show their disgust at the lack of transformation 21 years after the advent of democracy in South Africa by boycotting the untransformed Springboks. We call on black people of this country not to compromise on racism masquerading as nationhood and patriotism by supporting an untransformed Springboks.
“We call on black people to form their own black rugby national team in defiance to the status quo and to ensure that deserving black players also do play at the highest level (and) open up the franchises by extending the number or use (of) clubs not franchises.”
Now, the rugby transformation flap has been brewing for years, and it was inevitable that it would come to a head at some point. And has it ever — helped in part by how badly the Springboks are playing in their current configuration, and in part by the fact that we’re firmly in the throes of the post-reconciliation era. In hindsight, all that Invictus nonsense seems a little hoary and absurd — instead of bedazzling Francois Pienaar’s short shorts in fairy dust, perhaps the Mandela government should have been, I dunno, supplying electricity to shantytowns in Limpopo.
For those who believe sport galvanizes a nation, 1995 should serve as a bracing corrective. So here we are, slap-bang in the middle of a rugby flap that in many ways resembles the Gleaneagles years. As in days past, the Springboks don’t unite the country, they divide it. Black players have appealed to the Congress of South African Trade Unions over the union’s discriminatory practices; the Freedom Front Plus have appealed to the British High Commission — the British High Commission! — in order to safeguard the team from the horrors of affirmative action. It’s all a great big balls up, as they say — and okes who just want to braai, watch the game, get sh*tfaced and drive their Hiluxes into trees are caught in the middle of it.
The BFLF claims aren’t new, but they’re certainly a corollary for so much in this country at the moment. Try this on for size: racism in the sport is maintained by an exclusive schooling system, and perpetuated by a preference for equally exclusive franchises over the development of inclusive clubs. Scouts hardly ever see young black players from the townships play. Soccer, on account of the club system, has transformed. Rugby, because of the school/franchise system, has remained the exclusive preserve of the Afrikaner. As the BFLF puts it: “Because whites are a minority in South Africa they had to go with the franchise system to cater for the reality of white people. With a minimal number of franchises instead of many or clubs ensures that regions have enough pull of white players to choose from than opening it up like in soccer.”
If all of this changed, would we play better rugby? Hard to say. But here’s a gruesome statistic: tiny New Zealand, with its majority white population, fields more players of colour than does South Africa. If we could increase the pool of talent from 5-million to 50-million, the reasoning goes, perhaps we’d have a better chance in this tournament than, say, Romania.
Here’s the BFLF plan of action, which again is far from new, even if it is revolutionary:
“Everyone acknowledges the racism that drives rugby in South Africa but thus far we have implemented measures that only entrench racism. Think of a decision that was taken to give Cheeky Watson all powers to spearhead the formation a black rugby team that would compete in the Curry Cup and Super Rugby. Instead, Watson brought another white team. The same mistake we did appointing Joe Slovo to represent our case to whites and he penned the Sunset Clauses. All this points to an action spearheaded by blacks themselves and not wait(ing) for another white messiah to solve our problems. We can’t leave it to the untransformed Springboks to solve our problems for us. Let’s boycott the Springboks as a first form action; establish our black national team; dissolve the current franchise system and form proper club rugby league; then will transformation begin.”
The Untransformers. The All Whites. And so, the BFLF, among others, are calling for a boycott. No braais. No getting sh*tfaced. No Hiluxes wrapped arond trees. Or not until an alternative black rugby team hits the field. Twenty-one years is not a long time, but it’s more than long enough to broaden the pool of competent rugby players in a country of fifty freaking million. So what do we get instead of a Rainbow Nation sitting around the telly, eating Cheetos, cheering in unison?
A new hashtag: #WhiteSpringboksMustFall.
Until then, I leave you with the final scene of Invictus, replete with slow-motion grunting and fairy-dust encrusted short shorts. It will not be enough to tide over the true sports fan until this second great boycott ends, but it will have to do.