The Day the Springboks said "Thuma Mina"
Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are
Yesterday I cried. South Africa’s stunning World Cup victory was, at least for me, the final chapter of a story that began 3 years ago.
It was June 2016 and I was a visitor to Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth, the birthplace of the now legendary Siya Kolisi. I was there as a participant in SA Rugby’s “Project Intrepid”, a deep dive into both the Springbok “Brand” and the public’s perceptions of rugby in general. It was deep winter - not just at the Met office but on the rugby field as well. The Springboks were having one of their worst seasons on record which included their first-ever loss to Argentina and an almighty drubbing in Durban at the hands of the All Blacks. An embittered journalist had just contributed to the chill with the following pronouncement:
“As it stands at the moment, Rugby is a symbol of our national decay and failure"
Then, as now, decay and failure permeated everything: not just the news headlines but layer upon layer of daily life as well. As part of Project Intrepid, we were eager to explore these dynamics, particularly insofar as they were impacting SA Rugby’s emerging fan base. The journey took us to over 20 different settings in which we carried out over 100 hours of interviews.
My part in Project Intrepid began in Zwide, where I spent a morning with two young men, Siyabulela and Mandla. Siyabulela worked nightshift at a local shipping agent. While away at night, Mandla would come over to protect Siya’s Mum and little sister from tsotsis. Siyabulela had hoped to spend his first paycheck on a big screen TV: “But what’s the point?” he said ruefully, pointing out that within a week thieves would kick in his door and steal the screen to make whoonga. He pointed to a tiny TV in the corner “I’ll have to settle for that small thing over there. It makes me feel like a small person too...”
A week later, in a small home in Eerste Rivier’s Vanguard Estate, I spoke with two players from Tygerberg Rugby Club. Reflecting on gang activity in their neighbourhood, one pointed to a field beyond his street: “I can’t move much beyond that tree over there. If I go there they’ll get me”. In Mitchell’s Plain, two brothers described a similar threat: “Check this scar where they stabbed me,” said one pulling up his trouser leg. Then there was politics, race and corrupt leadership. “We’re an angry country,” said a young man from Rockville, Soweto: “I fear civil war or something worse”. Themba, a young bank teller from Cresta complained that the Government kept blocking him. “Our leaders behave as though they themselves were never young”. While such things admittedly affect women (and all too often in deadly ways), they were impacting males in subtler ways. We had begun to discern a great retreat of young men from reality, a gradual narrowing of existence to a simple line between work and home. “Live in your world, play in ours,” said a famous PlayStation advertisement...and many young men were taking the brand at its word. Of the 10 township homes I personally visited, only 2 lacked some form of digital trapdoor into an alternative reality. The cry for something or someone they could believe in was almost audible. But then, amidst all the gloom, a silver lining: a series of startling discoveries about rugby itself. The sport had something that soccer didn’t. And it had it in bucket loads... Even football fans conceded that rugby players were not just harder but in many ways more honourable than football players. Said a young man from Zwide: “Rugby players are disciplined...you see them on match day walking in the street with their pants ironed and wearing ties”. His friend agreed, “Rugby players take no shit - they’re serious about their sport”. One former player told me that “Rugby is about a brotherhood” going on to describe his team’s pre-game rituals. “We sang songs from home – sometimes even struggle songs - they gave us courage”. One player described his high school rugby coach as “the father I never had” while another from Langa said: “I’m not the guy who wanted to fight with his fists – Rugby was my fight”. Rugby - it seemed, was not so much a sport as it was a code. Indeed, for those who were already playing it, this code had given more than it had taken. Perhaps most surprising of all, Black people hadn’t given up on the struggling Springboks. “The Springboks are winners, even though they sometimes lose,” said one respondent while another presciently remarked that, “If they can win the World Cup then what else can stop us?” As uplifting as these insights were, they stood in stark contrast to the traditional (white) fan base. I interviewed veteran journalist Dan Retief in a coffee shop outside Newlands Stadium. As a historian of the game, Retief is peerless. As a futurist, less so. A despondent Dan left me with the distinct impression that the obstacle of transformation was so insuperable that the Springboks might never again shine on the world stage. Subsequent interviews revealed that most white fans felt the same way. And as Bok performances continued to deteriorate, there was a palpable grieving over a lost era. What did all this mean for the Springbok brand? Our search for answers led us to Johnny Clegg, founder of bands Juluka and Savuka. “When we formed Juluka” recalled Clegg, “we offended people...but we didn’t care because we were interested in a different narrative about South Africa”. A different narrative was exactly what the Springboks needed. But what would it entail? Our little working group assembled on a sunny autumn morning at Cape Town’s Hamilton Rugby Club, one of SA’s oldest rugby institutions. How to make sense of what we had all seen and heard in recent weeks? “It’s not just a game with an odd-shaped ball”, someone wrote on a Flipchart; “it’s a voice that summons us to stand tall”. The day progressed: “could rugby be a ‘father’ and a ‘brother” to the many young men who’ve never known one?” someone asked. We explored the concept of heroism: someone recalled the great battle of Isandlwana and the heroic sacrifice of Mkhosana Biyela who commanded the chest of the buffalo that bloody day in 1879. When the Zulu attack faltered under withering British fire, Mkhosana rallied the young unbloodied warriors with is famous cry “Don’t Run! Don’t Run! The King gave us no such order!” Though killed moments later, Mkhosana’s courage and sacrifice inspired the young warriors to rise up and defeat the British. Hero archetypes like Mkhosana hold the promise of triumph. Their power lies not purely in their determination, courage and perseverance - it lies in their ability to inspire others. Put another way, the Hero’s “gift” to the world around them is competence and courage. The hero’s sole mission is to make heroes out of other people, and then to pave the way for these heroes to bring their own brand of heroism back to the world they themselves inhabit. But while we were brimming with excitement, it was beyond our mandate to actually make it happen. The best we could do was theorise: “We need a coach like Erasmus” someone volunteered, “coaches the world over fear him”. “We need a backline with coloured and black speedsters...leave it up to the Afrikaner strongmen to look after the scrum...”. It was so much hot air and, given the circumstances, all seemed a bridge too far. Until 9 weeks ago that is. As the tournament progressed, I recalled those heady weeks in 2016. Could our vision for the Boks actually come true? Yesterday I managed 10 minutes of the Final before the pressure got to me. I tried to convince myself that if the Boks lost, it would still be an amazing achievement. But that did nothing to settle the nerves: Project Intrepid demanded nothing less than an emphatic victory. I went for a long walk, dipping in and out of Twitter as muffled roars erupted from the clubhouse down the way. I felt like legendary athletics coach Sam Mussabini who, in the 1924 Paris Olympics, didn’t have the stomach to watch Harold Abrahams compete in the final of the 100m. Instead, he waited in a hotel room overlooking the stadium so he could see which flag would rise first during the medal ceremony. At about the 55th minute, my brother called to advise me that I was missing “a most enjoyable game” and that I should probably get myself to the nearest TV… Yesterday I cried because of what the victory meant to South Africa at a time like this. I cried because the Project Intrepid team could not have done a better job of scripting the narrative. I cried because of that beautiful moment when Siya Kolisi raised his hand in a victory salute to President Ramaphosa as if to remind him of his now-famous “Thuma Mina” speech. But mostly, I cried because of my frailty: I yearn for the good news but then when I get it, forget it too quickly and allow myself to be shaped by the bad. One thing, however, is clear - the Springboks have shown the way.