One Team, One Nation

Up until now I have had fairly little to report on and have been communicating mainly via email to those few who find my daily happenings of interest.  Yesterday, however, was a day that will  not only stand out as memorable when I look back on this trip, but one that has, without a doubt, allowed me to shape a deeper understanding of post-apartheid South Africa and the tremendous potential this country has to heal its still very prevalent racial wound.  Oddly, such moments are often complete happenstance and occur in the most unexpected places.  This one involves rugby.

Yesterday was the Super 14 Rugby match between South Africa’s Vodacom Bulls and the Crusaiders (Australia).  This is not a fact I would have known had I not been asked if I would like to attend with a number of volunteers from the organization where I am interning.  Given my dreadfully limited understanding of Rugby I was not overly excited about the game but saw it instead as an opportunity to do something new.  This attitude, however, was not received well by really anyone I spoke to as apparently tickets had been sold out for months and my sheer luck in getting some seemed baffling.

The game here was not the important part, however. I will already tell you that we won.  What made yesterdays match so particularly special was that the game was moved from Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, to Soweto’s infamous Orlando Stadium due to fears that the Rugby match would ruin the grass at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, which is being used for World Cup training.   I will try to explain breifly the tremendous significance of this decision before providing details about my own evening.  For those of who you have seen Invictus, you may see where I am heading.

Rugby is one of South Africa’s big three sports, alongside soccer and cricket. For many South Africans, rugby is a serious matter, a source of bursting pride and joy – or shattering disappointment.  This energy and support for the game has allowed South Africa to take on a prominent position in international Rugby and, alongside Australia, have the highest ranking teams in the world.

Historically, however, South African Rugby has been viewed as a white sport, and perhaps more specifically,an Afrikaner sport.  This is in contrast to soccer which is much more popular among black South Africans.  As a result, sport in South Africa, like all else, is a heavily racialized industry that has equally the power to segregate as it does to unite.  Recognizing this power, Mandela actively used sport (among other predominately cultural activities) as a site of reconciliation during the first few years following the dismantling of the Apartheid regime.  In 1995, the first year of Mandela’s presidency, South Africa was selected to host the Rugby World Cup.  While many petitioned to change the name of the national team (the Springboks), who were viewed as representative of the Apartheid regime, Mandela refused and instead chose to don the jersey of the Springboks team captain Francios Pienaar, a white Afrikaner.  As the first major event in the new Rainbow Nation, the 1995 Rugby World Cup would prove to be a fundamental first step in uniting a fragmented and divided population.  When the Springbok’s won the Rugby World Cup that year, the “One Team, One Nation” slogan became a testament to the cultural power of sport, and the limitless potential of a united South African nation.

During the past 15 years, Rugby has become increasingly accessible to all and a growing number of black South Africans are playing the sport. Despite this, while there are endless improvements that should be noted, racial tensions still exist within South African sport and invariably within conceptions of South African nationalism.  The 1995 Rugby World Cup played a tremendous role in breaking down these barriers.  Interestingly, and completely unbeknown to me only two days ago, the necessary venue change of last nights game would carry on that torch.

At 1PM yesterday, “K”, the boyfriend of another international volunteer, picked me up in Melville on route to his friends house in Soweto, where that evenings game was to be played.  While I had taken a tour of Soweto in the past, partying there is an activity I had not yet had the pleasure of experiencing.  After a quick stop at the liquor store, we made our way into the township which, for probably the first time in ages, was over run with Afrikaners getting pumped to watch the match.  K had been mentioning that his friend had made the newspapers that morning because he had painted his whole house Blue with the team logo to welcome the Bulls to Soweto.  This was of course both an extended hand to their Afrikaner guests and a savvy business move as the group was selling alcohol and food.  After a lengthy drive through a buzzing Soweto, we arrived at the blue house and this is where we ended up partying at both before and after the match.  When we pulled in there were already probably 40 or 50 people outside the house, a DJ was set up, and there was a pig roasting on the fire.  Around us were thousands of fans, both black and white (though most of them were painted blue from head to toe) enjoying the local hospitality all of the Sowetans were extending.  After a few Carling Black Labels (One of South Africa’s most popular beers which of course was at one point created and brewed on Carling St. in London Ontario) we all poured into the stadium to enjoy our 3rd row seats.   As the whole crowd partied, and in unision sang Shosholoza (see embedded video below for get an idea of what I mean) while the Bulls pumbeld the Crusaiders in Soweto, it was clear that something very special was happening.  By the end of the game, when we had returned to the blue house (which was quickly becoming a temporary shebeen) it was difficult to discern whether the crowds were celebrating a win on the rugby pitch, or a win for their country.  This thought was confirmed near the end of my night as I spoke to a local who emotionally recounted how he had fought for a country where this was possible.

I am already working on tickets for next weeks finals.

Click here to view a news article about the match quoting Desmond Tutu

Cheers and thanks Soweto for an unbelievable night!

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Categories: Editorials and Reports

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2 Comments on “One Team, One Nation”

  1. David
    May 24, 2010 at 3:03 am #

    Hey Jp….email me at basnett3@gmail.com

    we haven’t kept in touch since i deleted facebook

  2. May 25, 2010 at 12:53 am #

    aaaah Black label, I had one last night as well. I really enjoyed this post, rugby is a great game.

    Miss You

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