Lifestyle & Belief

Where rugby remains a white man's game


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Nearly 14 years after then-South African President Nelson Mandela used rugby to win the hearts of white Afrikaners, the sport's officials are stepping up their efforts to woo the country’s black majority.

South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks, are ranked among the world's top teams every year. But despite efforts to boost black participation, rugby remains dominated by whites. 

Black politicians are critical of the sport, saying that it doesn't reflect South Africa’s diverse population. Now rugby officials hope a new strategy to promote rugby in black communities will not only assuage concerns over the racial makeup of the national Springbok team but, in the process, improve the quality of South African rugby.

“As we dig into that pool of diamonds or gold and bring out more of those people through, the demographics of the Springbok team will in the not-too-distant future really represent the demographics of the country, which is 80 percent black,” said Willie Basson, strategic coordinator for South African Rugby, the sport’s governing body. “The quality, because we are accessing a far greater pool of human capital, will therefore also be better.”

And that’s the key point of Basson’s argument. The white minority that has provided many of South Africa’s best players is rapidly shrinking and aging, so it's essential that the country's much larger and younger black population join the sport, Basson said. To achieve that goal, SA Rugby is setting up school-level rugby programs in black areas and establishing channels between these schools and higher-level clubs.

Unlike a previous strategy of quotas for black players that angered white supporters but produced few results, Basson said the demographic argument is winning over even “the most extreme of right-wing communities.”

“I can quite honestly say that the last seven or eight months, I have never had one single person in those forums query the merits of the strategy and how we are going about it,” he said.

Mandela famously used rugby as a nation-building opportunity when he donned the Springbok jersey and handed over the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy to South African captain Francois Pienaar.

But the sport itself has remained a far cry from Mandela’s rainbow-nation ideal. Many Afrikaners still see rugby as the last bastion of a culture they feel is under assault, while many blacks view the sport as a remnant of the apartheid regime they fought so hard to eliminate.

Daniel Watson broke the race barrier by coaching black rugby players during the apartheid years and was recently elected president of the Eastern Province Rugby Union. Changing the country's rugby mindsets remains his biggest challenge. The coastal area’s black population has a long rugby tradition; making sure black players achieve success at the highest levels will be one of his main objectives, he said. In the works is a new professional franchise that would draw heavily from the local player base.

“It would make a major difference because it would give them an opportunity that they never had before,” Watson told GlobalPost.

The challenge is even greater in places like Soweto. Soccer carries massive appeal in Johannesburg’s largest township, with three professional soccer teams. Soweto’s lone rugby club finds itself courting prospective talents in primary schools before they are lured into soccer-dom.

“It’s extremely difficult to convince someone to quit soccer and come and play rugby,” said Thando Mhlongo, who coaches junior players at the club. “We have to provide incentives, T-shirts, things like that.”

And incentives are hard to come by. With meager resources, the club is unable to provide transportation to and from practice, and young players end up walking up to 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) home “without anything in their tummies,” Mhlongo said. Come match time, other challenges arise. Insults often fly from spectators, players, coaches and even referees, Mhlongo said.

“They love this sport so much that they want to protect it and keep it as their own,” Mhlongo said. “Now we as blacks, we’re coming to take it away from them. That’s how they see it.”

The repeated taunting prompted the Soweto Rugby Club to disaffiliate itself from the local Golden Lions Rugby Union last fall. The club rejoined the union this month after its complaints were investigated. GLRU President Jannie Ferreira said the union has stepped up its anti-racism campaign and improved the procedure for reporting racial incidents. Ferreira also said that the local rugby union is working hard to create rugby programs in disadvantaged communities, having opened eight in the Soweto area last year.

Njabulo Xaba, a 17-year-old at Soweto Rugby Club, said he believes the opportunities are now there for the taking.

“This is the beginning of a big thing,” he said. “There will be a Springbok from Soweto in a few years’ time, but it all depends on us.”

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