SA rugby’s racist roots and how to overturn them

Racism is part of the fabric of rugby, whether in the stands, on the pitch or in the boardroom where key decisions are made. But how can the sport rid itself of this to become truly democratic.

It didn’t take eight white South African rugby players refusing to take a knee, or former Springbok Ashwin Willemse storming out of a television studio to realise that rugby has a race issue. Race and rugby have been inseparable since the first kickoff and its tentacles reach deep within the game’s structures. Depending on which side of the fence you find yourself, racism is either a tolerable side-effect of change or a crisis that has been overlooked for far too long.

Amplified by the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, former players and coaches, including Willemse, have questioned rugby’s inability to face its racist past and deal with the residual effects of systemic racism. Black players and those classified as coloured by the apartheid regime have long complained of being overlooked for key positions in teams and as coaching staff. The furore over Proteas fastbowler Lungisani Ngidi’s support of BLM seemed to embolden past players to speak out publicly, joining a number of black former Proteas who revealed that they felt victimised during their time in the national team.

So, is it possible for rugby to rid itself of racism? Can the sport exist in a society that has been ravaged by centuries of racial conflict, when racism appears to be institutionalised along with inequality?

Rugby, more than most sports, was mollycoddled by the apartheid government. The game did, after all, complete the four pillars that constituted life under orange, white and blue rule; the other pillars being braaivleis, sunny skies and Chevrolet.

Sport was the artificial flavouring that sold the world a mouldy cupcake, while beneath the surface and behind borders it used sport to further deepen the chasm between rich and poor, white and black. Rugby was the slice of life the National Party wanted the world to see, as long as it reinforced the party’s ideals that were passed down by their forefathers.

For more than 150 years, racism has found a willing bedfellow in rugby, as it did with all South African sport and life in general. Over time, rugby became a special brochure for selling Afrikaner nationalism in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. As South Africans grew more divided with each painful twist in a grotesque history of enslavement, statutory or otherwise, black rugby’s light was slowly and systematically dimmed until its heroes died without praise, their dreams strewn by the wayside as unity approached in 1992.

Rugby’s long dance with racism 

The first rugby game in South Africa was held in 1862 in Green Point, between the army and civil service. It was arranged by the headmaster of Bishop’s College, Canon George Ogilvie. There was just one problem, only white players were allowed to participate. And so began rugby’s dance with racism.

The sport was quickly adopted by white farmers in Stellenbosch and before long, the narrative of rugby as a white sport had been solidified, despite all evidence to the contrary. Rugby’s roots and popularity among African communities were whitewashed, and at times actively subverted under the jackboot of the apartheid regime. The weight and pressure of those jackboots on black communities may have lifted since 1994, but the telltale signs of years of abuse are still plainly evident today.

This article was initially published at NewFrame


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