The South African rugby players who refused to take a knee in England, months after the Springboks sought to use their World Cup win to ‘pull the country together’, have exposed the facade of unity.
The party seemed like it would go on forever. Three days before it officially started, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan as captain of the best rugby side on the planet. Now on home soil, he stood in an open-top bus, brandishing the trophy in a nationwide parade that would span four days. By the time it was over, millions of South Africans needed a nap.
“We are so grateful to see these beautiful scenes,” Kolisi told a crowd in Soweto during the jamboree. “We hope that this is going to pull the country together and fight together as one to make this country amazing again.”
He was not alone. Apart from a few curmudgeons in red overalls and a handful of right-wingers unable to accept that the Boks were skippered by a black man, the overwhelming sentiment was one of hope. Hope in the actualisation of Nelson Mandela’s assertion that sport has the power to change the world. Hope in a new dawn after so many dark horizons. Hope that a band of brothers unified by an emblem and a common goal could bring together disparate factions after decades of hurt and mistrust and neglect and resentment.
For a while, hope endured. In February, three months after their emphatic 32-12 win over England in the final, the Springboks were recognised as the Laureus World Sports Team of the Year. On receiving the award, Kolisi again espoused a message of unity. His team was a beacon for a rainbow nation no longer desaturated. His journey from poverty to prosperity had become a guiding light. A new dawn indeed
Then the world stopped spinning. The coronavirus put the brakes on almost everything on the planet but it also denied us the opportunity to galvanise around our favourite sports teams. Kolisi, Makazole Mapimpi and others have emerged as totems of athlete-activism in this trying time, but they have done so more as individuals than as part of that united force.
This convoluted question has no definite answer. It is, however, worth considering in light of 10 Britain-based South African rugby players declining to take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and how their actions chafe against the views of their national captain.
In an impassioned video on Instagram, Kolisi related his well-documented struggle in the game to the global campaign for racial equality. “I didn’t feel like I mattered. If my suffering and my pain does not affect you, then we’re not actually stronger together. Until our lives matter, no lives matter. Black lives matter.
“We have to start addressing these issues. People are standing up. I won’t keep quiet. If it will cost me my place in the team it doesn’t matter. It is time for all of us to change and start living for the South Africa that so many people have died for. It is time for all of us to come together.”
Refusing to take the knee
That message was clearly lost on two of Kolisi’s World Cup-winning teammates – Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager – who, along with six other South Africa-born Sale Sharks players, stood while others kneeled before their match against Harlequins on 14 August. The next day in Worcester, Ruan Ackermann was the only Gloucester player standing while Francois Venter was one of three Warriors players who remained upright.
It’s been more than four years since Colin Kaepernick bent the knee ahead of a National Football League preseason game in protest against excessive police violence towards black people. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback originally remained seated for his country’s national anthem but transitioned to one knee following the advice of retired army green beret Nate Boyer, who felt it would be respectful towards veterans.
Today, the gesture is intrinsically linked with on-field protest and has become a one-size-fits-all act of solidarity with a number of social justice causes. It is also divisive.
This is in part owing to the binary nature of the act. You either kneel or you don’t. But to transpose a black and white metric on to multifaceted and complex issues such as structural inequality, racial biases, centuries of oppression and unequal power structures will inevitably lead to disagreement. It’s a zero sum game.
This article was initially published at NewFreme