Springboks: Story of Unity in South Africa through Rugby

Why are South Africa called Springboks?

Springboks’ recent success in the 2023 Rugby World Cup received positive reactions from rugby fans and the South African public. Springbok widely known as a national rugby team that represented South Africa in international competitions since 30 July 1891.

This team is famous for the green and yellow gold colors on their jersey. In addition, the national team’s emblem originates from a native antelope called the Springbuck or Springbok. These medium-sized antelopes found mainly in South and Southwest Africa, became South Africa’s national animal. The South African rugby team holds the most World Cup titles four 4 times and was also the current reigning champion in 2023.

Early Days of Springboks

The first rugby match in South Africa took place on 23rd August 1862. The players on the field came from civilian and military backgrounds, from England. In 1875, rugby clubs such as the Hamilton and Villager Club were formed in South Africa. In the upcoming years, rugby gained popularity throughout South Africa, spreading swiftly to Cape, Kimberley, Orange Free State, Transvaal, and Rhodesia.

Early Springbok team in 1906, all members were white Afrikaners and British Colonials \\ Image via South Africa History Online

The South African Rugby Union was formed in 1889 to create standardization amongst different clubs. 7 years after its founding, South Africa sent their first national rugby team to the British Isles. South Africa’s first rugby team comprised only Afrikaners and the British colonial. This tour played a vital role in erasing past conflict between these 2 groups during the Anglo-Boer war.

English media during the days referred to the team as the Springboks in English or Springbokken in Afrikaans. A few years after the tour, the participation of black South Africans in rugby started to rise. By the late nineteenth century, some black South Africans used rugby to represent their identity.

From the early introduction of rugby in South Africa, Rugby has created unification amongst various groups of people. It helps in weakening the division between different ethnic groups of people in South Africa. The early days of rugby proved to heal past wounds and build commonalities throughout South Africa.

Springboks and Afrikaner’s Identity

Despite the early success of unifying South Africa, rugby was also used to reinforce barriers in the later years. Afrikaners are one of many South African ethnic groups descended from the Dutch settlers. They arrived in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 and dominated the agriculture and political sector until 1994.

Throughout the 19th century, the Springbok emblem became linked to Afrikaner nationalism. Many Afrikaners believed that the success of the Springbok served as a reflection of their civilization in South Africa. The majority of the former players used their status to join politics and most of them supported the National Party (Nasionale Party).

Members of South Africa’s National Party, the party that initiated the apartheid policy in South Africa || Image via The Nations

Furthermore, many former players were associated with a secret brotherhood called the Broederbond. This secret brotherhood consisting of male Afrikaners, has a sole aim to advance the well-being of the Afrikaner people. In 1948 the National Party won the national election with unofficial support of the Broederbond.

In 1950, the National Party passed the Group Areas Act which assigned racial groups in South Africa to different residential and business in urban areas. The effect of this law excludes people of color from living in developed areas. At the same time, this act also segregated all public areas in South Africa, which included rugby pitches.

With black South Africans not having access to rugby facilities across the country, this situation prevented them from representing South Africa in a Springbok Jersey. The Nationalist Party envisions the Springbok symbol representing the Afrikaner’s values and characteristics. They believed adding black players to their team would slowly erode the values of the Afrikaner people.

Springboks during Apartheid Era

Apartheid-era signs in South Africa || Image via ThoughtCo

Many agreed that Springbok indirectly involved in reinforcing the segregation act during the apartheid era. During the apartheid era, Springboks still consisted only of white members in their team. During the 1960s, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd announced that New Zealand rugby teams coming to South Africa would not be allowed to bring their Maori players.

This announcement led to public outrage for the New Zealand Rugby Association and the International Rugby Board. In response to Verwoerd’s announcement, the New Zealand rugby team decided to cancel their tour to South Africa. The Springboks faced much pressure during the ’60s and ’70s particularly due to South Africa’s racist policy that led to the isolation of the Springboks team from international rugby matches.

During the 1980s, South Africa once again toured New Zealand. However, many New Zealanders believed that it was a step backward to accommodate the Springboks. The New Zealand public did not support the idea of their national team competing with a country with a racist mindset.

Finally, the International Rugby Policy took significant action to suspend South Africa in international rugby matches from 1984-1992. This suspension affecting the Springboks badly since they will not be able to join the first Rugby World Cup in 1987.

To tackle all the isolation in the past years, Springbok rugby leaders like Danie Craven and Louis Luyt decided to set up a meeting. After 3 years of negotiation, they agreed to create a new organization called the South African Rugby Football Union (SAFRU) on 19th January 1992. South Africa finally established a new unified and non-racial governing body for rugby.

Springboks during Post-Apartheid era

Nelson Mandela visiting the Springboks member before the World Cup || Image via Yahoo News

Despite the newly governed body, perceptions of rugby in South Africa remain the same and did not change swiftly. Many Black South Africans viewed the Springboks as a symbol of apartheid. On the contrary, the Afrikaners still used Springbok as a symbol of their racial superiority.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected as the new president of South Africa. Mandela knew that there were a lot of works to address, especially in racial animosity between races. Mandela understood that sports could be a tool to unite the people. It is unique and has the power to bind people together, sports could also bridge the gaps that divide people.

Despite various pressures to remove the Springboks emblem as a symbol of the South African rugby team, Nelson Mandela decided to keep the Springboks as the national team emblem. Rugby is always important for the Afrikaner and Springbok is considered a second religion for the Afrikaner. Mandela strongly believed the Springbok symbol would unite the two worlds in his country, the black and the white people of South Africa.

Furthermore, South Africa was the host of the 1995 Rugby World Cup after a few years of isolation in rugby competition. From this opportunity, Nelson believed that the success of the Springboks in the World Cup would be beneficial to all South African people.

Before the start of the World Cup, Nelson became close friends with Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springbok rugby team. Both of them worked together in promoting the ideas of unification between the white and black South Africans.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup: Story of Racial Reconciliation

Shortly before the start of the 1995 World Cup, Mandela visited the Springboks’ training camp. During the visit, Nelson Mandela supported the team and said:

“The country is fully behind them. I have never been so proud of our boys as I am now and I hope that that pride we all share.”

No one could believe that the Springbok would achieve a good result in their opening game. The first game showed the Springboks defeated the Wallabies, Australia’s national rugby team and world champion at the previous edition of the World Cup. With a hard struggle, the Springbok secured the game with a 27-18 lead. In the rest of the games in the group stage, the Springboks were able to secure another 2 remaining games. They defeated Romania 21-8 and beat Canada 20-0 in a physically tough match.

In the quarter-final, South Africa faced the West Samoa rugby team. Despite an extremely physical match, South Africa won comfortably with 42-14. During this match, the Springbok’s only Black team member, Chester Williams, made history by scoring 4 tries in 1 game.

The semi-final game is very thrilling for the South African public. They faced France, which had a better disciplinary record throughout the tournament. Many fans expect that France will get through the final round of the tournament. However, it turns out that the Springboks gave a valiant fight and strong defense to stop the French comeback. In the end, the Springboks secured the game 19-15 and went through the final round.

The Final Match that changed the country

On the day of the final, 63000 Springbok fans filled the Ellis Park stadium. Significant differences can be seen on the stand, on the opening match against Australia, many spectators waved the old South African game. On the contrary, no old South African flag was waved at the stadium. As Nelson Mandela walked into the stadium wearing a Springbok jersey, the spectators who were mostly white started to chant Nelson’s name.

The final game between South Africa and New Zealand started intensely with penalties awarded to both sides. The referee blew the full-time whistle and showed an equal score of 9-9. The game continued to 20 minutes of extra time and halfway through the extra time, the All Blacks took their lead with another penalty 12-9.

Unexpectedly, the Springbok did not give up the fight easily. In less than 10 minutes, South Africa drew level with another penalty awarded to them and made a comeback with a drop goal from Joel Stransky. Finally, the referee blew the final whistle, and the score was 15-12 in the Sprinbok’s favor.

All the Springbok players dropped to their knees, praying, and gathered themselves to make their victory lap. In a post-match interview, a journalist asked Francois Pienaar how it feel to play in a stadium with more than 60,000 Springbok fans. Francois firmly replied:

“We did not have 60,000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans supporting us. “

During the trophy ceremony, Nelson Mandela helped to hand over the trophy to the captain of the team. As he did, Mandela said, “Francois, Thank You for what you have done for the country”. Francois Pienaar replied, “No, Mr Mandela, Thank you for what you have done for the country.”

The victory of the Springbok considered to be one of Mandela’s achievements as the president of South Africa. He demonstrated that many good things could be done for good through the power of sport. In 2000 at the Laureus World Sports Awards, Mandela said:

“Sports has the power to change the world, Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.”

South Africa’s problems post-apartheid

South Africa riot in 2021 caused by Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment and economic inequality || Image via Anadolu Anjasi

Springbok’s success did not stop in 1995. They continued to win another World Cup tournament in 2007, 2019, and recently in 2023. Despite Springboks’ success in international competition, the country they represent had some ups and downs throughout their journey post-apartheid.

Today’s South Africa is among the world’s unequal countries. Inequality between the Black and White worsened since apartheid formally ended in 1994. The unemployment rate getting worse and hit the highest rate in South African history at 33.3%. Even before the pandemic, the economy had been plummeting in recession. According to the New Yorker, 65% of South Africa’s population claimed that they could not afford and were struggling to get daily necessities.

Despite vast natural resources, particularly uranium, diamond, gold, and titanium, South Africa still suffers from recession, corruption, inequality, high criminal rate, and even electricity blackouts in recent years. During the pandemic, South Africa saw its worst unrest in July 2021 due to worsened cases of job layoffs and economic inequalities. Sparkled by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng erupted into riots resulting in the death of 354 people, looting, destruction of infrastructures, and racial tensions.

Springboks’ Recent Success and Hope for South Africa

With their recent success back in the 2019 and 2023 Rugby World Cup, the Springbok have shown their domination in the world’s rugby. The Springboks shows that this success was possible from people coming from different backgrounds and uniting to reach their goal.

Despite the issues mentioned above, South African perception of Springboks has changed from a symbol of racial superiority to a symbol of unity. Many signs of improvement seen within the Springboks team. In recent years, Springboks have held coaching clinics in various regions for South Africa’s disadvantaged youths. Furthermore, the current squad became more diverse by having some black players such as Siya Kolisi, Damian Willemse, Bongi Mbonambi, Makazole Mapimpi, and more. Despite small numbers, it shows massive improvement compared to 1995.

After their triumph, the celebrations played out in major cities, townships, and every street throughout South Africa. Both black and white South Africans gathered in the airport and streets to welcome the Springboks members. The government also initiated a trophy tour to different cities and it served as an opportunity to spread significant messages to the people.

The Springboks’ captain, Siya Kolisi said during the trophy tour:

“We come from different backgrounds with different challenges, and we see life very differently, but we share the same strenght and diversity, and we work for South Africa!”

Additionally, Kolisi also added that he wished that this unity between the South Africans would continue and remain the same. He believed that unity would help South Africa get stronger and better in the future.









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