I had looked forward to the Rugby World Cup, held in Japan, for at least two years, always convinced that I would never make it. Just two months before I was ready to turn 90, I was so convinced that I began to write these Chronicles, just as something to keep me occupied. Well, I made it, not only to that major turning point in life, the big Nine-Oh, as I often think of it, but far beyond, almost two years beyond, when the competition began at the beginning of October. Past the early days of the tournament, when my favoured team, the New Zealand All Blacks (photos of which back to 1905, assiduous readers may remember, since I have often mentioned it, I had pinned to my bedroom wall as a kid of six or seven), opened the tournament with a magisterial performance in defeating the South African Springboks, then right on to that unexpected day when the All Blacks rolled over and played dead in face of a superb semi-final display by England, a game that not only left the All Blacks to play for third place, but also, as it happened, drained the remaining life out of the England team, so that in the fateful final against the South Africans, they in turn were overcome just as completely as they had overcome the All Blacks.
Out of deference to my readers and their admitted lack of interest in Rugby, that is almost the last word I will have to say on the actual games played. What has interested me more is something the meaning of which has imposed itself more forcibly since the overwhelming Springbok win on Saturday. That is, the spectacle of their captain, Siya Kolisi, an extremely black African, holding up the victor’s Cup in triumph, and subsequently making a brief but extremely apposite little speech about the beyond-Rugby meaning to his nation of this triumph.
To fully understand that, one must know something of the history of South African Rugby which until the defeat of the Apartheid regime, was the acknowledged sport of white south Africa, with the tough, dominant South African Boers having, as the rivalry developed, shown themselves of such merit that hardly anyone could beat them. Few games were played between the nations that became the two great rivals, New Zealand and South Africa, and I got into being a major fan when I was just nine, in 1937, when South Africa, a brilliant all-white team of mostly Boers, beat the pants off us.
The South African team was called the Springboks for the first time during a tour in Europe in 1906; the All Blacks gaining their nickname a year before that, either from their being dressed all in black, or because some commentator, marvelling at the quality of their game, wrote that they had never seen any players like these New Zealanders, who ran and passed as if “they are all backs”.
New Zealand did not have an intimate relationship with South African Rugby during the dismal years in which the self-governing Boers were moving slowly towards the lunatic solution of apartheid (which I heard Henrik Verwoerd, their Prime Minister in the 1960s describe at a press conference as “good neighbourliness”, to which a few minutes later I heard Pandit Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister reply sharply, “I wouldn’t like to be his neighbour, then”). During all those decades British-raised nations like New Zealand soporifically accepted the restrictions the South Africans insisted on placing on the membership of teams, not only their own teams, but also the teams that opposed them.
By 1949, when I was a young reporter covering a trial match whose purpose was towards choosing an All Black team to visit South Africa, I distinctly remember that the outstanding player at the trial was a fellow called Taylor. But never mind his ability, he was considered not to have the qualifications needed to visit South Africa because he was a Maori. There were many other fine Maori players --- I remember especially the greatest payer I have ever seen, the immortal Johnny Smith, who arose to fame as a member of the Kiwis team gathered from the New Zealand Army abroad, who dazzled the New Zealand public with his play when they toured the country ---- players who should have been eligible for that tour to South Africa, but were excluded because of their race by the New Zealand Rugby authorities --- a distinct black mark against that passing grade that New Zealanders like to give themselves on the subject of race.
This injustice toward the Maori players in 1949 stuck in my craw, and when four years later I found myself working on a small weekly paper in Coventry, England, alongside an English-speaking South African, fresh off their so-called education system, I was so disgusted by the contempt with which he spoke of the black population of his country, as to as make of me a lifelong opponent of that particular form of pseudo-religion, and to decisively
kill off any wish I might have had to visit that beautiful but troubled country.
By the 1960s, a decade of intense political agitation in Britain that gave rise to Harold Wilson’s Labour government, I had seen a bit more of the world, which consolidated in me a humanitarian impulse towards disbelieving any racist propaganda, under whichever disguise it is offered.
Of course my judgment of South Africa is no doubt too severe. Although I keep reading from recent visitors that apartheid still exists there in that the white population is still in control of anything that matters, even by the 1980s --- I have to keep reminding myself how long ago that was, almost 40 years --- there were the occasional signs of change in that country. Nevertheless, New Zealand’s continuing involvement with South African sport had led the African nations to boycott the Montreal Olympic Games. The following year a Commonwealth conference passed the Gleneagles agreement pledging their members “to discourage contact and competition between their sportsmen and sporting organizations, teams or individuals and those from South Africa.”
Before a Springbok team was chosen for the next rugby tour of New Zealand in 1981, the captain Morne Du Plessis, the scion of a leading South African sporting family, whose father had preceded him as Springbok captain, recognized the impossibility of their continuing racist ideology in the modern world, and thus withdrew himself from the game.
Just in time, because that 1981 tour should never have been allowed to take place. New Zealand radicals, at last, were ready for it: every game had to be played in the face of massive public protests, in stadia surrounded in barbed wire entanglements, and in an atmosphere of brutal police behaviour against peaceful citizens, whose main weapon usually was a loaf of bread, used as a mock sword. The final match was bombed from the air by a light plane dropping bags of flour on the game.
After his release from prison, Nelson Mandela testified that this near civil war reaction in New Zealand had been a considerable influence in maintaining their morale in their struggle for freedom, and by this time most moderate South Africans had tired of being considered the polecat among the world’s nations.
And so down to this weekend and the decisive South African victory, under the first black captain, a young man who came from an impoverished township not far from Capetown, brought up by a 16-year-old mother and a teenage father, a boy who gained a scholarship, it seems, and thus an education, largely because of his skill as a sportsman. The story of Springbok victory in 1995, at a time when only one member of the black or colored majority was included in the team, is relatively well-known. Nelson Mandela refused the wish of his sports committee to strip the Springboks of their name because, he said, the Afrikaners still controlled everything, the army, police, economy and political power, “and we need to win their support.” Magically, they won the Rugby World Cup.
This weekend Francois Pienaar, the Springbok captain recalled that moment in 1995 when he received the cup from Mandela as a great moment, but one that was even less in its meaning for South Africans than this more recent victory. Kolisi himself struck the same note in his remarks after the final whistle, saying that the result meant more than just a Rugby game. “I want to thank all South Africans for their support, on the farms, in the taverns, in the communities and in the cities. We can achieve anything if we work together as one. “
In the team of 15 players, five were of African origin. At last, after thirty years of trying, culminating in a much- criticized system of quotas for black players, the moment had arrived when the team could be said to represent the nation as a whole.
As Kolisi told a recent interviewer: “Yes, we do have many different races in our country, and 11 different languages. It is one of the positives of our country. It’s really beautiful (and) that’s why we are called the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ ” he said. “Winning is very important for our country. It just shows that when we decide to work together for one goal or as a team and as a country, we can make anything happen.”