Siya Kolisi, seen here during a team training session at Arcs Urayasu Park in Tokyo, heads a Bok team that has come a long way since 1995. Picture: STEVE HAAG/GALLO IMAGES
Siya Kolisi, seen here during a team training session at Arcs Urayasu Park in Tokyo, heads a Bok team that has come a long way since 1995. Picture: STEVE HAAG/GALLO IMAGES

What is it about rugby that drives South Africans crazy? If you want to experience national hysteria about race, manhood and wars fought more than a century ago, you do not look to netball, tennis, hockey or even the beautiful game, as the great Pele once dubbed soccer; you find it in a sport played with an oval ball reputedly made of pig’s bladder, squashed between 15 brutish men on each side.

Squeal! It’s odd, this political madness around rugby, for its roots lie in colonial Britain, but it is the Boers who since the early 20th century rallied patriotic sentiment and ethnic passions “to beat them at their own game”.

Panyaza Lesufi is an ambitious political hack with a keen eye for racial discrimination. He made the huge mistake of calling out a South African draped in the national flag at Yokohama Stadium in Japan this past weekend. SA was playing Wales for a place in the rugby championship final when Lesufi’s sharp eye noticed the exposed white and orange strips of a flag on a white man’s body. Instantly, our education chief in Gauteng tweeted: “That flag, unfortunately is spoiling it! This team @Springboks belong to all of us. Let’s avoid hurting each other unnecessarily.”

Our eager beaver had to apologise, as subsequent video stills showed it was, in fact, the new flag the poor fan was so proud to wrap around his frame.

Race and rugby are joined at the hip.

To be fair, this obsession with rugby and race runs on both sides of the colour line. Who can forget the despicable headline of an Afrikaans Sunday paper (translated): “Damien Allende [the Springbok centre] is Coloured” and then covering their racist behinds with the subheading “but does it matter?”

Race and rugby are joined at the hip. In 2003, a white player, Geo Cronje, refused to share a room and a toilet with his black teammate, Quinton Davids, just as the rugby team was about to depart for the World Cup in Australia. And just before this team left for Japan, another team forward, Eben Etzebeth, was accused of using a racial slur against four black men in the coastal town of Langebaan before fixing a gun on a homeless soul.

But the roots of rugby’s belligerence lie way back in the past.

My favourite meme doing the rounds on social media makes the point that the “First Anglo-Boer War was 1880-1881. Second Anglo-Boer War was 1899-1902. Third one is apparently scheduled for next Saturday”. You make a mistake if you think this is a worn-out joke. That anti-English sentiment has never quite gone away. Anyone watching traditional English-Afrikaans school rugby clashes, like Affies versus Pretoria Boys, would know in an instant that all sorts of past struggles were being resolved on the field. “There’s this little unfinished business,” tweeted a well-known white SA woman ahead of a sporting clash between SA and England.

More than one academic historian has written about the relationship between rugby, masculinity and Afrikaner nationalism. Albert Grundlingh’s book, Beyond the Tryline: Rugby and South African Society, is an excellent account of the politics and passions of rugby among Afrikaners. With his daughter, Marizanne, Grundlingh also explains the other side of this most political game – the paradoxical support the All Blacks still enjoy among some black South Africans (not only Trevor Manuel) because of how rugby came to represent white supremacy and racial exclusion in the apartheid years. It’s a sticky mess, all of this, rugby and politics.

Which is where the brilliance of Nelson Mandela came in. Madiba knew what he was doing in 1995. To walk onto that rugby field, where the same rugby cup final competition was being played at Ellis Park between SA and New Zealand, would touch the hearts and perhaps change the minds of some among the millions of white South Africans watching this clash of the titans. It was unforgettable. Mandela congratulated the white captain, Francois Pienaar, who in turned thanked “Mr Mandela” for what he had done for the country. You needed a rugby match for such a symbolic and potentially transformative moment in the history of a fractured country.

We have come a long way since 1899 or 1995. The captain of the team is a black man from a lowly primary school in the Eastern Cape who watched the 2007 Rugby World Cup final (also England versus SA) from a tavern in Zwide township because his family could not afford a television set. One of the most popular players is a Zimbabwean-born prop forward nicknamed Beast. Whites and blacks alike are praying that the Springbok’s talisman, a diminutive little man from Brackenfell High School (and relative of Wayde van Niekerk, the world record holder over 400m), will be fit for the final after sitting out the semifinal clash against Wales with an ankle injury.

On Saturday, I will, like millions of South Africans, bring my biltong and my beer (OK, Coke Light) to watch the final. I am confident we can beat the Poms because of the character of this team, the willingness of the coach and the passion of the fans. And if captain Siya Kolisi is the man who raises the William Webb Ellis trophy in Japan on behalf of his team, I know I will be overcome with emotion, for we would have taken yet another step forward and beyond our divided past.

This article was first published by Times Select