Twenty years after former SA State President Nelson Mandela came shuffling onto the pitch wearing a green and gold Springbok jersey to promote racial reconciliation, many South Africans are not convinced the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad had shed its reputation as a bastion of white privilege.
The roars of approval that greeted Mandela’s decision to wear then captain Francois Pienaar’s jersey have slowly turned to rancour over perceptions that the team — the most prominent face abroad of South African sports — sidelines black players.
“South African rugby has lost the opportunity to transform,” said Louis Mzomba, a veteran rugby administrator who coaches rugby in black townships.
“In 1995 everyone, black, white, pink or whatever, was behind the Springbok, but now we have gone backwards,” he told a French news agency.
Coach Heyneke Meyer named nine black players out of a squad of 31, still far short of the target of 50 percent that administrators have set for themselves to achieve within four years.
Meyer’s predecessor Peter de Villiers, the first and so far only non-white Springbok coach, who helped propel the team to the top of the rankings during an uneasy 2008-2011 tenure, told Reuters some of the country’s best-performing players were black, but were not being given a chance to shine.
“You can have the best Ferrari, but if there is a roadblock and road works, you can’t go any further until you remove it,” he said. “Players such as flyhalf Elton Jantjies and centre Lionel Mapoe had proven themselves during the Super 15 rugby competition between South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, but were still not being given enough opportunities”, he said.
“Transformation is being stopped by having all the white coaches there to push an agenda to stop it. They stopped a natural evolution of transformation, they never let it go on to become great and we would never have had this problem now,” De Villiers continued.
Criticism intensified a few weeks prior to the start of the World Cup when South Africa fielded a mainly white team against Argentina at home on Aug. 8, only to lose 37-25. A week later, the Springboks included more black players for a follow-up match in Buenos Aires, and won 26-12.
“We want the black players who are in the squad to get game time, not only be bag carriers,” said a declaration from trade union federation Cosatu which threatened to protest games and campaign for sponsorship withdrawals if teams are too white.
Rugby has a fraught history as a symbol of South Africa’s racial divisions under apartheid. For generations, the black majority mainly gravitated more towards soccer, while rugby came to occupy a special place in the psyche of white South Africans, particularly the descendents of Dutch settlers known as Afrikaners.
The national squad, called the “Bokke” in the Afrikaans language, became an international power with a playing style that emphasises raw physicality, brute strength and strict discipline. Under apartheid, black South Africans often rooted for the Springboks’ defeat in international tournaments.
Since the end of white rule in 1994, blacks have been drawn into the sport in ever larger numbers, but their presence in junior amateur ranks has not yet translated into game time at the national level. Black Africans accounted for just 12 percent of players in Springbok national games last year, according to the South African Rugby Union (SARU).
Some critics say coaches still rely too much on the formal tactics developed in white-only teams during the apartheid years, and overlook the contributions that can come from more individualistic styles developed by some emerging black players.
“A lot of South African coaches are still playing an old school mentality of rugby where we are very formal in the way we play and the black players are a lot more exuberant and extravagant in playing the game, and I don’t think all coaches have bought into that style of play,” said one rugby agent who represents black players.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, the agent asked not to be identified because commenting on racial politics in the game could hurt his image.
Having spent 500 million rand ($38 million) on a transformation policy since 1994, SARU has a range of targets to increase representation of non-whites.
For example, by the end of this year in the northern part of the country, black, Asian or mixed-race players should make up at least 36 percent, or 9 players in a squad of 25, including at least two black Africans. By the end of competition all 9 non-white players should have played in at least one game.
Since Chester Williams broke the race ceiling as the only non-white player in the 1995 World Cup-winning team, race has been an uncomfortable issue for some players, some of whom resent any suggestion they achieved success because of quotas.
The leading all-time try-scorer for the Springboks, 32-year-old wing Bryan Habana, from South Africa’s mixed-race “coloured” community, has expressed unease at talk of race.
“I’m South African, I’m not coloured, I’m not black. Even though the colour of my skin will portray something to certain people, to me I’m South African. I don’t understand black,” he told the Guardian newspaper in 2008.
Some whites speak with open disdain about the quota system: “If you going to select a team now because of political pressure and you are going to leave players out that should be there simply because they are white, then of course that is blatant discrimination,” said Kallie Kriel, chief executive of Afri-forum, a group which campaigns on behalf of Afrikaners.
South African fans of all races have rallied behind players like Habana and Zimbabwean-born forward Tendai Mtawarira, who hears chants of his nickname “Beast” when he takes the field.
But promising young black rugby players face tough hurdles, with most township schools lacking finances, facilities and specialised coaching needed to nurture their talent.
In overwhelmingly black Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, for example, only one in 35 schools plays the game at all. Sixty percent of school rugby is still played in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces, home to large Afrikaans-speaking white and mixed-race communities.
Still, rugby officials insist the Springboks will soon look more like the nation they represent.
“Since we started the process of developing this (transformation) plan the provinces have shown their bona fides and black representation is increasing. Our target is set – 50 percent black representation by 2019,” Jurie Roux, chief executive of SARU, told Reuters.