For South Africans, winning the Rugby World Cup united a nation torn by politics, race and inequality. That’s the power of sports.

Siya Kolisi lifts the trophy after the Rugby World Cup final match between New Zealand and South Africa in 2023.

South Africa’s Siya Kolisi lifts the trophy after the Rugby World Cup final match between New Zealand and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris Saturday, 28 October 2023. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

South Africa’s nail-biting triumph in the Rugby World Cup transcended mere sport, bringing euphoria, relief and distraction to a country that is suffering terrible problems.

The “Springboks” beat their arch-rivals New Zealand, another rugby-mad nation, by one point in a bruising final on 28 October in Paris, sending thousands of dancing fans out onto the streets in South African cities and even in the wards of hospitals as screaming doctors and nurses jumped in the air.

Their inspirational captain Siya Kolisi, a national icon, lost no time after the game in underlining why the win was so important as a contrast to the problems that have dashed Nelson Mandela’s dream of a prosperous, united “Rainbow Nation”.

South Africa, the continent’s most developed country, has record rates of unemployment and poverty, crumbling state infrastructure and one of the world’s highest murder rates.

In remarks echoed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, Kolisi said: “The people of South Africa will tell you that there’s not a lot going right in our country …. (but) once we come together nothing can stop us, not just in sport but in life.”

Referring to South Africa’s sad distinction of being one of the most unequal nations on earth, according to the World Bank, Kolisi, who grew up in deep poverty in a Black township, added in a speech after returning home:

“We are very diverse as a team. Diversity is our strength in South Africa,” Kolisi said. “I want to encourage you, Mr. President and the cabinet, we need to use our diversity a bit more. It is a powerful force that a lot of countries don’t have that we can use.”

The team’s motto is “Stronger Together”.

Kolisi, the first Black Springboks captain, is an inspirational leader and a powerful, eloquent voice.

His message was a subtle reprimand to successive governments led by Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) that have failed to exploit South Africa’s rich potential to raise living standards for most of the majority Black population and plunged the country into crisis.  

The rugby final mirrored many global sporting moments that have an impact and significance way beyond the stadium.

 This article was produced exclusively for News Decoder’s global news service. It is through articles like this that News Decoder strives to provide context to complex global events and issues and teach global awareness through the lens of journalism. Learn how you can incorporate our resources and services into your classroom or educational program. 

When sport transcended politics 

The Olympics have rarely been free of political repercussions, as seen famously in 1936 in Berlin where the four gold medals won by Black U.S. super-athlete Jesse Owens confounded Hitler’s attempt to showcase Aryan racial superiority.

At the height of the Cold War, the United States and 64 other countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Moscow hit back to lead a boycott by its allies of the Los Angeles Olympics four years later.

In 1972, Palestinian gunmen stormed the Israeli athletes’ quarters at the Munich Olympics, killing an athlete and a coach. Nine hostages and five Palestinians and a West German policeman were killed in a botched rescue.

In 1968, at the Mexico Olympics, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in the Black power salute from the winners’ podium to support the Civil Rights movement.

More recently, sports teams around the world have “taken the knee” before matches in a protest against racism that spread from the United States after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Russian players and athletes were banned from many events because of the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Rugby has a special role in politics in South Africa.

South African rugby has been at the centre of politics in sport for decades and has undergone an extraordinary change of status.

Under apartheid it was the favourite game of the white rulers and Black South Africans, excluded from the game, often rooted for their opponents.

The country was banned from the Olympics and many other events for 30 years but New Zealand, where rugby is a part of the national identity, continued to play against them.

More than 20 African countries boycotted the Montreal Olympics in 1976 because New Zealand had toured segregated South Africa.

In 1981 a Springbok tour of New Zealand deeply divided the country and caused the biggest unrest for 30 years. An official history described it as “near civil war”. Two matches were cancelled by protests.

Covering the story for Reuters, I watched pitched street battles between riot police and protesters outside the stadium where the final match was played. A protester flew over the stadium in a light plane and dropped flour bombs onto the pitch.

Many disgusted New Zealanders turned their back on the sport for a decade. The South Africans were not invited back until apartheid ended.

 Rugby as a symbol of unity

Rugby changed from a symbol of South Africa’s pariah status to a harbinger of hope in 1995 when Mandela used it to send a crucial political message.

Mandela had spent 27 years in prison. During that time, he studied sports newspapers closely until he became an expert in rugby as a way to get through to his Afrikaner jailers.

After apartheid ended in the early 1990s, the sporting boycott of South Africa was lifted and the country hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, winning against all odds in the final against a powerful New Zealand team.

Mandela appeared on the pitch wearing the Springboks green vest, long-hated by Black South Africans and wearing their cap, to present the trophy. It was a masterstroke, dramatized in the film “Invictus”, that won over millions of white South Africans who had seen him as a Black terrorist.

In that game, there was only one Black player. When South Africa won again in Paris last month, taking a record fourth title, almost half the team was Black.

Dreams shattered 

However, the 1995 victory did not fulfil Mandela’s dream and scepticism remains about whether this year’s triumph can have a lasting impact despite the eloquent rhetoric of charismatic captain Kolisi.

Nearly 30 years after Mandela said sport “could change the world” about half the 60 million population live in poverty, a third of the workforce are unemployed — some analysis says 40% — and the mineral-rich country is estimated to have the world’s second-highest murder rate outside a war zone.

Some younger people are reassessing Mandela’s saintly reputation, saying he put too much stock in reconciling with the minority whites and not enough in making the Black population more prosperous.

However, this may be unfair. South Africa enjoyed a decade of growth and development after 1998.

Much of the subsequent decline and disaster stem from the nine-year presidency of Jacob Zuma which was dominated by huge levels of corruption during which ANC officials allowed billions of dollars to be looted from state coffers and government policy to be hijacked by his associates, according to an official commission.

Zuma was jailed for refusing to testify to the commission.

The ANC also installed incompetent party hacks to manage state enterprises, including the electricity company Eskom, leading to power outages of up to 12 hours a day in some places. State railways were severely damaged and the state airline went bankrupt. The post office collapsed.

Private companies are now providing public services in many areas because of the government’s incompetence. Ramaphosa, a friend of Mandela, who had promised to reverse the damage done by Zuma, has been a disappointment to many, apparently stymied by corrupt ANC officials.

In elections next year, polls say the ANC may lose its absolute majority for the first time since the end of apartheid.

It is small wonder that Ramaphosa wanted to promote the victory of Kolisi and his team. “We need more of this, and not just in the domain of sporting achievement,” he said. “The patriotism we display in sports stadiums should be reflected in our approach to overcoming our challenges.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why was South Africa’s rugby victory so important?
  2. How has Nelson Mandela’s dream turned sour?
  3. Can you identify other examples where sport has transcended politics?
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Barry Moody was Africa Editor for Reuters for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. He worked on every continent as one of the agency’s most experienced foreign correspondents and editors. His postings included Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, Hong Kong, Australasia and the United States. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the EU debt crisis.

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