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The Springbok World Cup Gift: The Glue Keeping South Africa Together Doesn’t Have to be Xenophobia

Picture is Courtesy Sydney Herald

The time on the clock stood at ‘79:48’, New Zealand’s fourteen men against fourteen South Africans, the ball was rolled into the final scrum of the game. A huge clash of 16 men, eight against eight, squatting at a 90-degree angle created a force of equal strength against each other. Watching five meters in front of a big screen erected at a local sports club kneeling in the warm grass, hands clasped, praying, and urging the Springboks on, a young man screamed with a now hoarse voice from supporting for the last one hour twenty minutes, “Push Springboks, push!” He was urging on the South African rugby team, 11 800 km from Paris, imploring in Shona that Siya Kolisi’s men finish the job and win the Rugby World Cup. 15 meters behind this ardent Zimbabwean Springboks fan snarled another man wearing a New Zealand rugby replica shirt, “Look at that idiot supporting South Africa, they don’t even like us.”

George Orwell was eerily correct when he said “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” Very few sports are more serious, violent, and engulfed in emotions of hatred, jealousy, and pride as rugby is for South Africans. The Rugby World Cup is a war that they have now won four times since 1995. The image of Nelson Mandela handing the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar is arguably more imprinted in the national consciousness than is Nelson Mandela becoming President in 1994. That is why Mandela went on to say, “sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.”

The World Cup victory has come at a time when South Africans have been searching for something positive to rally around. Inundated with corruption, load-shedding, and high, and rising unemployment, retaining the World Cup against their arch-nemesis in New Zealand has given the rainbow nation a reminder of what they have always aspired to be since the end of Apartheid which is being a beacon of hope, diversity, and progress in Africa. When a nation has a lack of positive social-political events or moments to keep the nation unified, it doesn’t create a vacuum that is not filled by anything until the next event happens, but negative, dark vibes take over and that is what xenophobia has become for South Africa.

In the aftermath of South Africa’s close win versus England in the semi-final, a xenophobic tweet (inserted below) by a Kwena Molekwa trended. She called Zimbabweans supporting the Springboks “international orphans,” which is a continuance of most of her works which are guided by a very narrow sense and logic of nationalism. In this sense and logic of nationalism, or what it means to be South Africa for people like Kwena, it is informed by ‘othering.’ Othering is a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are defined and labeled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group, in this case, South Africa. It is like how Trump supporters in the “Make America Great Again” campaign othered Mexicans and people of Latin descent as not being Americans. The goal of othering is to create a bond among those with similar characteristics by singling out those who are different.

The irony and lack of knowledge that is evidenced by xenophobes such as Kwena is that a part of South Africa’s identity is that it is a nation of migrants. For example, before Siya Kolisi came onto the global stage, the leading black athlete in the Springboks was Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira. Of course, South Africa is not the national team of Zimbabwe, but it is a national team whose history and makeup have been highly influenced by Zimbabweans.

Nation-building and preservation at its core is a complicated relationship, more so for nations such as Zimbabwe and South Africa that have a delicate web of ties. When Cyril Ramaphosa joined the Springboks on stage as they smiled and danced you could tell the sigh of relief on his face. He was benefitting from the association politicians love having with successful sporting teams. It is a form of ‘soft power’ that can help a President seem better than he is at his job as was the case for Ramaphosa when South Africa won the World Cup in 2019 or it can help your nation, even for a brief period forget their worries and challenges as is the case now. If you are lucky enough, you might even get some votes in an upcoming election that Ramaphosa desperately needs as the South Africa General Elections are a mere seven months away.

However, as mentioned, nation-building is complicated. For some Zimbabweans, Ramaphosa is the very reason for the continued malaise the nation is facing leading to xenophobia. Since Ramaphosa confirmed his unequivocal support for ZANU PF after the Zimbabwe August 2023 elections, the Zimbabwean Dollar has continued its second dance with hyperinflation, opposition MPs have been arrested, kicked out of Parliament, announced fraudulent by-elections to increase ZANU PF power, and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has stalled on any meaningful action on Zimbabwe.

This leads one to imagine whether this Rugby World Cup has not been a missed opportunity to bring the very serious problem of xenophobia and by extension, the crises in Zimbabwe to the international audience through sport. The obvious head scratch you as a reader might have is why would South African rugby be a sight of protest over things occurring in Zimbabwe. The simple answer is that they do know about the Zimbabwe crisis but because the Zimbabwe crisis has not found a way to regionalize and internationalize itself in the global mind, it currently feels too much a stretch for any action from them to occur. The action could have been as small as wearing black arm bands and issuing a statement that they were protesting the death of democracy in Zimbabwe. If the players couldn’t do it directly, the fans could have done it, Zimbabwean migrants and South African fans joined together could have organized one of the watch parties to be also a gathering of protestors simply waving Zimbabwean flags joined with South African flags or with clear messages. Simple acts, yes, but the symbolism in the context of the World Cup would have been profound.

Globally, there are examples of such actions occurring both in history and modern times. At the 1968 Olympics, two African American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem, in protest against racial discrimination in the USA. Europe banished Russia from major sports after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Glasgow Celtic fans are raising Palestinian flags in protest to the resurgent Israel-Palestine crisis. The Zimbabwe cricket team protested the Robert Mugabe regime during the 2003 Cricket World Cup. We shouldn’t also forget that as a response to Apartheid, the world banned the Springboks and other sports from playing international competitions.

It is disappointing that Zimbabwean democratic activists have failed to effectively regionalize and internationalize Zimbabwe’s democratic struggle into the global public imagination. That is the starting point from which any systematic counter to the crises in Zimbabwe should emerge. However, this current Zimbabwean crisis comes at a time when South Africa is answering the difficult national question, what does it mean to be South Africa? Unlike 1994 when that question was primarily being answered through racial lenses, this period demands the issues of inequality and migration to be adequately dealt with. Those answers cannot be found if South Africa doesn’t actively support a change of fortunes in Zimbabwe. The young man who knelt in front of the big screen as the referee blew the final whistle bringing the World Cup to a close didn’t jump up ecstatically with joy at its end. He stayed on his knees, eyes closed, and started humming the African national anthem, “Nkosi sikelel iAfrica.” He sang it in Zulu, English, and Shona.

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