Post-Apartheid South Africa wins Rugby World Cup

South Africa's rugby team in 1906

The elections held on April 27th, 1994 in South Africa marked the end of apartheid and of the country’s international isolation, including the ban on participation in most sporting events. Already not being able to compete at the Tokyo Games, it had formally been expelled from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1970. Though it remained a full member of the old International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), since 1981 South Africa was no longer allowed to participate in any competition abroad.

This happened despite the fact that, during their last tour of New Zealand before being banned, Errol Tobias became the first non-white player in history to win a cap for the “Springboks”, the rugby team’s nickname. The unexpected selection was opposed both by Whites and Non-Whites. Tobias later recalled that he wanted to show all South Africans that at the end only skills mattered, not color.

This gesture obviously wasn’t enough to convince the defenders of strict sanctions against the isolated White minority government. South Africa was excluded from the first two Rugby World Cups in 1987 and 1991 in Oceania and Europe.

After it was readmitted to international rugby in 1992, being awarded the 1995 World Cup was a clear signal of hope for South Africa. It would be the first major sporting event to take place there after the old order was gone and the last major event of the sport’s amateur era. In the 1995 final, played on June 24th, 1995 at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, the hosts surprisingly defeated New Zealand, the “All Blacks”, 15-12.

Then President Nelson Mandela, donning a Springbok jersey, presented the trophy to a visibly emotional team captain Francois Pienaar, shook hands with him, and raised his arms in celebration. This event inspired 2009 biographical sports drama film Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Hosting and winning was a powerful boost to post-apartheid South Africa. It paved the way for two more rugby final victories, in 2007 under John Smit and in 2019 under Siya Kolisi. Temporarily it also seemed to bridge the racial gap and forge a strong sense of national unity among locals waving the new national flag, regardless of their skin color.

Unfortunately, that momentum didn’t last long. Former President Frederik Willem de Klerk resigned as Deputy President in 1996. The relationship with his successor Mandela had been tense from the beginning of the bilateral negations about a shared government in 1990 and the difficult birth of the much-trumpeted “New South Africa”.

The personal integrity of its leaders reached an absolute low under Jakob Zuma and little should be expected from Cyril Ramaphosa, Zuma’s right hand from 2014 to 2018. White emigration from South Africa continues unabated and in the last 30 years around 900,000 of them have left for good.

They escape from an environment with some of the highest murder and rape rates in the world. Thousands of white farmers have been killed in gruesome ways during the last 25 years, often by their own employees. Their numbers are also dwindling rapidly, affecting agricultural output. At the same time, Blacks turned on each other due to growing tribalism.

The overtaken infrastructure is crumbling fast. Regular power cuts and blackouts, endless strikes as well as widespread corruption and nepotism hamper much-needed economic development. Urban decay in the heart of Johannesburg, the City of Gold, is obvious and accelerating. South Africa most likely will turn into a second Zimbabwe, completely ruined 40 years after full independence from Great Britain.

The 1995 triumph was undoubtedly a blessing for South African rugby, as it lost its apartheid connotation and besides football became a popular sport among the black population. Unfortunately, in other aspects the “Rainbow Nation” proclaimed in 1994 by Peace Nobel Prize laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu has failed miserably.


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