Rugby was once seen as the ultimate "white sport" in South Africa. Now, after years of concerted effort, it is deracialising, with a target to be transformed by 2019. Mushtak Parker reports on the progress and the challenges.
Rugby might be South Africa's most iconic sport, but it is certainly its most controversial. During apartheid, the sport was seen as a symbol of White Afrikaner supremacy.
Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has worked to transform South Africa's formerly all-white sports to be more racially representative. South Africa's first democratic president, Nelson Mandela, saw the previously all-white sports as central to national reconciliation, as well as noting a forgotten history of non-white rugby players stretching back to the 1860s. He resisted suggestions to remove the Springbok emblem from South Africa's rugby jerseys. Instead, it was moved from the prominent left side to the right side with the national flower, the Protea being added on the left.
In one of the sport's most famous moments, Mandela donned the famous Springboks jersey when he presented the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy to the South African captain, Francois Pienaar. South Africa was hosting the competition just one year after the start of the democratic era and just three years since re-admission into the sport following the release of Mandela and legalisation of the ANC.
The current policy to racially transform the sport, outlined in the South African Rugby Union's (SARU) Strategic Transformation Plan (STP) last month, is to have 50 per cent non-white players in the national team, known as the Springboks or Amabokoboko in Xhosa, by 2019. Once any team is at least 50 per cent "generic black" --meaning anyone classified as non-white under the old apartheid criteria, whether black African, coloured (mixed race) or Indian--and at least half of that proportion is black African, the Department of Sport and Recreation consider the side "transformed".
Jurie Roux, SARU's CEO, explained the policy to New African. He said that the transformation process "had begun to stall and even decline" after initial progress. So, he continued, "We needed to intervene".
Despite Roux's fears about backsliding on transformation, rugby in South Africa has already ceased to be a "white man's game". The majority of rugby supporters and players at junior level are black. But still more is to be done to deracialise...