SOMERSET WEST, South Africa (AP) — Black and white, they sat together on the edge of the dusty township street where Nelson Mandela once lived and watched their Springboks win the Rugby World Cup again.
The late Mandela would surely have liked what he saw — both the picture of unity among the South Africans watching the game on TV near his old house on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, and the Springboks’ victory in the World Cup final half the world away in Yokohama, Japan.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mandela’s friend, fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, and at one time his neighbor on that famous road, certainly did.
“We are incredibly proud to be South Africans,” Tutu and his wife, Leah, said in a public message to the victorious South Africa team. “You have achieved much more than winning a Rugby World Cup; you have restored a self-doubting nation’s belief.”
Just like in 1995, when South Africa won its first Rugby World Cup, the Springboks came to their beleaguered country’s aid on Saturday when it needed a little inspiration.
Unlike ’95, this wasn’t at home and in front of Mandela, South Africa’s beloved anti-apartheid leader and first democratically elected president who died in 2013. This one wasn’t just a year after the apartheid system of racial segregation was officially dismantled. It didn’t help hold together a country on a knife edge after decades of race-fueled violence. Many think no Springboks team will ever live up to the one of ’95, whose against-the-odds victory in the first Rugby World Cup South Africa was allowed to play in remains one of sport’s most enduring moments.
Captain Siya Kolisi’s team came close in Japan, though.
The 2019 Springboks fought back from a loss to defending champion New Zealand in their first game at this World Cup to beat England 32-12 in the final, becoming the first team to win the title after losing a game in the tournament. Triumph out of adversity.
That was one of the chords that struck back home, where South Africa is still gripped by desperate poverty and inequality.
Where violent crime statistics are appallingly high.
Where racial tensions still simmer.
Where the economic outlook is gloomy.
And where revelations of a corruption scandal involving former president Jacob Zuma, one of Mandela’s successors, has left South Africans angry and dispirited.
Suddenly, (hashtag)Imstaying appeared from South Africans on Twitter, a reference to renewed positivity in a country that has seen many leave for Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or anywhere that offers something better.
South Africans were undoubtedly united for a day while watching the Springboks, the crowds diverse in the black township of Soweto but also in the formerly white sports clubs of suburban Johannesburg. They waved the country’s multicolored flag. They sang and danced and drank beer in the summer sunshine. Strangers hugged and kissed spontaneously.
Yet only the most eternal of optimists will believe a rugby game can solve South Africa’s significant social problems. On Twitter there was also (hashtag)UntilMonday from some. As in, come Monday the same old problems will still be there.
After all, even the magic of Mandela and ’95 wore off in some ways. Nearly a quarter of a century after Mandela wore a Springboks jersey to that World Cup final in Johannesburg, and South Africa won in fairytale fashion, his country still battles many of the same issues.
If its rugby team is a microcosm of South Africa, then South Africans should take heart because the Springboks have solved their problems.
The team Mandela cheered on in the ’95 final was all white save for one player. And in the early part of that tournament it was completely white.
Under apartheid, it was white by force. No blacks were allowed. And for years after Mandela and ’95, rugby in South Africa remained a white-dominated sport and the Springboks a white-dominated team.
When he became president, Mandela was under severe pressure from his own political allies to distance himself from the Springboks, even scrap the team, which was so often used as an advert for the apartheid regime. He resisted and instead decided to completely embrace it, certain that the Springboks could become a unifying force.
On Saturday, South Africans cheered on their Springboks because they were truly their Springboks. The team was captained by a black player at the World Cup for the first time — Kolisi, the Springboks’ first black captain in their 128-year history. Two other non-white players, Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe, scored the Springboks’ triumph-clinching tries. Tendai Mtawarira and Bongi Mbonambi were leaders of a forward pack that overpowered England, and just about every other team South Africa faced. Center Damian de Allende was one of the players of the tournament.
Under apartheid, none of them would have been allowed to play for the Springboks. And while South Africa has had black players before, the team has never been so diverse and never reveled so much in its diversity.
The moment towering white Afrikaans player Eben Etzebeth planted a huge kiss on black teammate Trevor Nyakane’s head in the moments after the final whistle will be replayed for years in South Africa. A moment so commonplace for other sports teams but so symbolic for one that was once an overt symbol of racism.
After lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in Yokohama, Kolisi spoke about the team representing all of South Africa, not just white South Africa. Of it representing those in cities, in rural areas and, especially, in impoverished black townships. Words spoken also by well-meaning previous Springboks captains, but which rang true for the first time because Kolisi, himself, grew up in an impoverished black township and overcame his own adversity to hold the most important sporting job in South Africa, and lift rugby’s biggest prize.
“We come from different backgrounds, different races, and we came together with one goal and we wanted to achieve it,” Kolisi said. “I really hope that we’ve done that for South Africa.”
The 88-year-old Tutu, for many the moral compass of South Africa after it lost Mandela, rarely gives public statements these days. He was moved to on Saturday.
“We are a special country, and an extraordinary people,” Tutu said, and he ended his message with: “Our father, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, is smiling from the heavens today.”
Yes, you can’t escape that South Africa is still some way off what Mandela envisioned for his country.
But realize, also, that the Springboks have become exactly what he believed they could be.
More AP Rugby World Cup: https://www.apnews.com/RugbyWorldCup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Gerald Imray is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP