“One team, one country” – Springboks Rugby in South Africa

In 1995 South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup finals.

A previously struggling Springbok side made it to the final of the tournament which was played in the historical Ellis Park on the 24th June 1995. The Springboks won the Rugby World Cup final that year beating the All Blacks 15 – 12, but the greatest sight on that extraordinary day was the image of Nelson Mandela bravely walking onto the field wearing the green and gold of the Springbok rugby team.

The green and gold colours were the most significant symbols of apartheid and white supremacy in South Africa.

Such an image provoked the 63,000 capacity crowd to chant their Presidents name – ‘Nel-son! Nel-son!’

The black South Africa president, a man had who had suffered the brutality of the apartheid regime, proudly walking onto the field at Ellis Park representing the greatest sporting symbol of white supremacy and black inferiority was said to spark a tidal wind of change.

This change was said to bring unity and harmony to the people of South Africa – whites and blacks alike.

The Springboks teams of 1995 winning the Rugby World cup was said to spark better relations amongst the black and white members of the South African nation.

This change, however, was much short lived.

An account given by Chester Williams, the only black player in the Springboks team that year, squashed any rumour of change. Williams accounts reveal that only a week past that memorable day in Ellis Park he was subjected to racial abuse from team mate James Small.

The racial abuse was said to be a reminder of where Chester Williams belonged. The winger was referred to as a ‘Kaffir’. It is a cruel, and slang term which refers to a black person.

It appeared that South Africa’s “newly unified” national identity was merely transient. It was in the moment, and in fact it may never exist.

South Africa is plagued with racial, cultural, social, economic, geographical, political and indeed sporting divisions. The nation was ruled under apartheid law by a white minority National Party for 46 years (1948 – 1994) therefore forming a single, unified national identity appears impossible under such circumstances.

The idea of South Africa as a “Rainbow Nation”, where multiple nationalisms will be culturally accepted, may be more practical. However, it is largely an imagined community – one with which the media has, perhaps solely, created.

The real change, one of a more permanent nature, never happened at Ellis Park that day. But from 1995 onwards plans were set in motion. In 2001 Sport and Recreation South Africa launched their support for indigenous games, and set in place structures to include them in the South African Games. The significance of these games is there representation of cultural diversity. Celebrating sports and traditions from the nations forefathers is correspondent of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and the idea of multifaceted nationalism.

Further change and aspirations towards the ‘Rainbow Nation’ were visible in the alteration of national symbols. The emblem for the old South Africa had long been the image of a Springbok, an animal similar to a gazelle/antelope. The emblem changed to a flower called the Protea. The only sport which retained the Springbok emblem was Rugby Union by direct order of President Nelson Mandela. This allowed white Afrikaner national identity to be celebrated in what historically was ‘their sport’. What the president showed here was signs of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ by which there is a tolerance of different cultures celebrated under one nation; South Africa.

Cricket was another sporting practice used to create more permanent change in South Africa; to break down racial barriers in the long term. The United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCSBA) worked to open up opportunities to disadvantaged communities with a unique talent identification and development programme. The Cricket board identified talented black cricket players and placed them in white schools which had better equipment and facilities to advantage the young, black athletes. Cricket was a popular sport within South Africa that was bringing about real change most prominent during the 1996 – 1998 ‘Proteas’ tour who’s line-up included Makhaya Ntini and Herschelle Gibbs, two black South Africans who graduated through the UCBSA development programme.

The decision to include the players however may have purely been down to selection quotas that were used in South African cricket to end decades of racial injustice within the sport. Selection quotas existed, initially as an un-written rule, by which at least one black player had to be selected for the national cricket team. This quota was met with many concerns, and it was believed by some that selection into the squad should be based on merit and athletic ability rather than race. There were further problems after Ntini was dropped from the ‘Protea’ side and it quickly became apparent that there was no new black South African player to take Ntini’s place within the nations cricket side as a new role model for young members of the ‘Rainbow Nation’.

It would be a lie to suggest that race relations changed from 1995 the moment Francois Pienaar hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup aloft to a capacity crowd at Ellis Park. However, it would also be an injustice to suggest that such a moment in history did not set the wheels in motion in order to conquer racial barriers in South Africa. It was certainly a special occasion, one which will etch in the memory of the South African people and rugby fans around the world. It set the standards for what the nation could be. People of all races danced in the streets of South Africa that day, they waved the new national flag, cheered for their ‘Amabokoboko’ and for that one day they celebrated as one nation. If it happened once, it can most certainly happen again. Sport is not the answer to all of South Africa’s problems of course, there are many economic, political and social issues that spread beyond the realms of the rugby field however as the great Nelson Mandela once said:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Mandela believed in the power of sport, and he believed in a future where one day South Africa can live in a ‘Rainbow Nation’ were tolerance, peace and unity bring the nation together to celebrate cultural diversity as one nation. The events of 1995 where merely the beginning to a troubled, exhausting journey and only time will tell if one day the world will see the ‘Rainbow Nation’ in all of its colour and glory.







Keech, M (2004) One nation, one soul, one dream, one goal: sport and national identity in South Africa.


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