S. Africans reconciling through rugby

June 13, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- When Andre Odendaal was a youngster, he idolized South Africa's beloved national rugby team, the Springboks. As a young adult and anti-apartheid activist, he called for the international isolation of South African sports.

Now he's again cheering the team -- because the playing fields have seen the transformation of a symbol of white oppression into a totem of national unity, a sort of miracle of reconciliation through sports.

It has clearly seemed a miracle for Mr. Odendaal, moved by seeing President Nelson Mandela at the Rugby World Cup, being held this month in South Africa. There was Mr. Mandela, cheering on a South African team that by chance was all white.

"That's something that was unthinkable before," he said of Mr. Mandela's appearance. And just how unthinkable goes to the heart of what rugby means to South Africa.

Despite the game's British origins, it was adopted in the 1930s by Afrikaner nationalists as their own, in part because through rugby they could replay the Anglo-Boer war on the playing fields.

As the separatist mentality that led to apartheid grew stronger, rugby became the Afrikaner sport; cricket was for English-speakers, soccer for blacks.

The international success of the Springboks became a source of intense pride for Afrikaners. When international sanctions deprived them of that, the pain was evident. Grown men cried when the All Blacks, the team of another rugby-mad nation, New Zealand, canceled a tour to South Africa in 1985.

South Africa was allowed to resume international play in the early 1990s. Whenever then-President F. W. de Klerk was confronted by an audience hostile to his freeing of Mr. Mandela and unbanning of the African National Congress, he had one sure-fire way of quieting the crowd: He would ask his audience if it wanted to go back to the days when the country's sports teams were banned from the rest of the world.

"Many of us were upset that the ANC agreed to the rugby team playing those games," says Mr. Odendaal. "We thought it was premature because there had been no real change in the structure of sports. But it turned out to be the right thing to have done."

International approval

Letting the Springboks back into the world arena gave Afrikaners a taste of what international approval would mean, whetting their appetite for more. The World Cup, being played here this month, is the feast.

Still, leading up to the tournament, there were worries about the behavior of the fans. Rugby matches remained tribal rituals for the white die-hards, the last hold-outs against political change.

In 1992, they broke a promise to the ANC by singing the Afrikaner anthem, "Die Stem," at a game. At virtually every match, the stands were peppered with the old South African flag even after most of the country had embraced the new one.

There were elaborate pre-tournament preparations to counter that. A Zulu working song, "Shosholoza," was adopted as the Springboks' official song in hopes that the stadiums would rock with its rhythmic chant.

The team hired a Xhosa language coach to teach it the words to "Nkosi Sikeleli Africa," now the national co-anthem with "Die Stem." Afrikaner team captain Francois Pienaar said all the right things to the media.

The one black player on the team, emerging star Chester Williams, seemed to be everywhere. He was pictured on billboards all over the country, his eyes with a menacing stare and a text -- "The Waiting's Over" -- with multiple meanings.

Then Mr. Williams strained a hamstring and was off the team, an embarrassment since this African country would now field an all-white squad against racially mixed teams from such nations as New Zealand, England and France.

But all seemed forgiven when Mr. Mandela showed up to cheer on the 'Boks.

"When he spoke, you didn't see one old flag in the stands," says Mr. Odendaal. "There were about 10 there, but everyone kept them furled. And as the tournament has gone on, you've seen fewer and fewer of the old flags."

It hasn't been a sea change. Soweto does not come to a standstill when South Africa takes the field; white neighborhoods do.

"Shosholoza" has not rung out at the games. Indeed, one of the few times it was heard was when black fans in Port Elizabeth sang it to celebrate a victory by the nonwhite Western Samoans over Argentina.

Shift in attitude

But the shift in attitude is noticeable. Efforts to bring rugby to disadvantaged areas -- efforts which always looked like window-dressing before -- now seem genuine. And plenty of blacks have called talk shows and written letters to newspapers saying how they now take pride in the fact that this is their team on the field even if not everyone really understands the sport. Calls to get rid of the Springbok emblem, once despised as an apartheid emblem, have diminished.

"I think there has been a genuine change," Mr. Odendaal says. "Because of the World Cup, people in rugby are realizing what it is like to have the world accept you, to have everyone going forward together in the same direction instead of looking back over your shoulder suspicious of everyone else."

The good news for South Africa is that Mr. Williams' hamstring has come around, and he returned to the squad in time for the Springboks' quarter-final match June 10 against Western Samoa.

His is only one black face among 26, but for South African rugby, it is a start.

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