The final of the Rugby World Cup was of special interest to me because I watched it in a rough little pub only a few kilometres away from the town where I grew up over 60 years ago.
I recognised the faces, types and voices of the different races I knew in my childhood. The setting and the mood, however, could not have been more different – and incomparably better.
I was brought up in the 1950s in Fish Hoek, the seaside town in the Cape Peninsula. Fish Hoek was “white” and “dry”, a suburb where the sale of alcohol was illegal. The result was that Fish Hoek probably had more alcoholics per square metre than anywhere else on Earth, and every sports club became a shebeen. Fish Hoek also had many places of worship, and so served both its serious churchgoers and its serious drinkers. The people were mainly English-speaking and used to vote United Party; they liked apartheid but disliked Afrikaners. The beach was strictly segregated, with most of it marked “Europeans Only”, but a small section between the Silvermine River Mouth and Clovelly Station was set aside for the “maids” who looked after white children on the beach. I’m sure I remember two signs next to each other on that treacherous stretch marked “Danger. Quicksand” and “Non-European Swimming Only”.
I watched the rugby final at the “Bush Pub”, halfway between Kommetjie and Fish Hoek. The crowd consisted mainly of rough whites, but with a considerable sprinkling of blacks and browns, all mingling together in raucous good cheer. I can guarantee you that almost all those whites would have voted for apartheid in the old days. The mood was rude, happy and excited. Everyone was screaming for the Boks. (In the old days at Newlands Rugby stadium, the “Coloureds” would always cheer for any opponent of the Boks.) When Makazole Mapimpi scored the first try (the first ever for the Boks in a World Cup Final), the rough white okes went into ecstasy. There was at that moment complete racial harmony and universal happiness in the Bush Pub. The only time I have felt that before was standing in a queue in Richards Bay on 27 April 1994.
The game itself was mysterious to me. I don’t understand why we won so emphatically and thrillingly. All the sporting experts and, more importantly, the bookmakers thought England was going to thrash us. Their coach, Eddie Jones, was a genius; their preparation had been brilliant; and they had thumped New Zealand, who had thumped us. (If I’d known how to bet online, I’d have bet on England. Fortunately I was too stupid.) We were in for a hiding. Instead we gave England a hiding – a most entertaining one, by far the best of our three World Cup victories. England played their worst match of the rugby cup in the final, and we played our best
What are the lessons of our glorious victory? Will it “unite the nation”? It seems that sporting triumph does promote national pride to some extent but not with any long-standing benefits. Communist East Germany did outstandingly well in the Olympic Games (perhaps assisted by drugs), far better than free West Germany. I don’t remember any economic benefits from this to East Germany or any improvement in civil harmony. The spectacular successes of black and brown men in the Springbok team must surely go a long way in breaking down racial prejudices and promoting goodwill. Will this promote national prosperity? It certainly can’t harm it, but sporting success and economic success seem uncertainly linked, as East Germany showed.
The Springbok captain, Siya Kolisi, is the most interesting case. He came from a humble background in the Eastern Cape but was elevated by his receiving a scholarship to Grey High School, a fee-paying school with teachers appointed on merit, where he flourished both academically and in sport. For those who say that affirmative action helps disadvantaged black people to advance, do they believe that Kolisi would have advanced better if he had instead gone to a no-fee school with teachers appointed through affirmative action?
In 2018, Rassie Erasmus became the Springbok coach and two months later he made Kolisi its captain. No doubt there were suspicions of political advantage and racial tokenism but these seem to have been dispelled by Kolisi’s high skills both as a player and a leader of players. The partnership between Erasmus and Kolisi seems warm, professional and highly successful. Nothing but good there. (And Erasmus now replaces Jones as the world’s rugby coaching genius.)
At the Bush Pub, I noticed that the stony-faced white barman who never made eye contact unless you were a beautiful woman or a seven foot man has been replaced with a stony-faced black barman who never makes eye contact unless you are a beautiful woman or a seven foot man. Perhaps this is a surer indication of our future than the rugby glory. I hope not.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the IRR.
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