The Springboks Winning the Rugby World Cup is not a Cure for South Africa's Social Problems
The hype around South Africa's recent Rugby World Cup win feeds into the myth of the rainbow nation.
South Africans all over the country erupted in glorious celebration as the last whistle blew signalling their victory in the Rugby World Cup final against England. It was a moment that the country, as a democracy, has only ever experienced twice before. As Siya Kolisi, the Springbok's first Black captain hoisted up the trophy, it was evident that South Africans from all walks of life were genuinely united together. President Cyril Ramaphosa stood beaming with pride and waved enthusiastically at his national team in the same way that Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki had at previous World Cup tournaments.
But while the victory was truly inspiring, South Africans have now largely returned to their respective realities, one comfortable and affluent and one precarious and poor. The tremendous show of cultural unity created by the win is now being used as a front to mask the deep divides which continue to widen between Black and White, rich and poor. The fleeting unity often fostered as a result of major sporting events, is being made out to be a fully-fledged resolution to these divides. It is not.
Adriaan Basson, the editor-in-chief of News24, wrote an article entitled "The rainbow nation reloaded—let's not mess it up again" that pointed out that now is not the time for South Africans to think the country's woes will be addressed now that the Springboks have brought the win home. While he correctly points out pervasive inequality, state corruption, unemployment and poverty, the underlying sentiment speaks to the Springboks' victory having allowed the country to effectively "reset" to this non-racial ideal of a "rainbow nation"—initially championed by the late Mandela in the post-Apartheid era. Several other publications are running with narratives that enforce the idea that the "elixir" to the country's deep socio-economic issues is an 80-minute game with fifteen players on a team that itself has been heavily criticized for inequality among those same players.
Sport in general has always united people. It was for this reason that Mandela rallied behind the Springbok team back in 1995. He had hoped that he could show South Africans that despite the 40 odd years of a brutal and segregationist regime that killed many Black South Africans, they could unite for a common goal. And while his endeavor was noble, it was short-lived. People were only united in that singular moment and immediately returned to the stark reality of lives steeped in generational oppression. This is true for this year's win. While the privileged White man who lives in the affluent suburbs of Sandton could sing along to the national anthem with his Black gardener from Alexandra township (and may have even embraced when the Springboks won), the Black gardener inevitably returned to earning sub-minimum wage while his White boss will continue doing nothing to actively address that disparity. South Africa is a country so deeply traumatised that we would rather accept flimsy representations of unity and justice for all as opposed to actually doing the tough work that would bring that about.
South Africa's unemployment rate is now sitting at 29 percent, the highest it has ever been in 11 years. With a population of about 52 million people, at least 30.4 million are living in poverty. Part of why Kolisi's story has been so inspirational is precisely because he comes from that reality. In an interview preceding the final game, he spoke of how he had no television at home to watch the 2007 World Cup final against England and had to walk to the local tavern to watch it there.
South Africa's recent Rugby World Cup win is many things but what it is not, is a cure for racism and inequality. Addressing those issues can only be a result of concerted efforts to have uncomfortable conversations about race and class and put in place policies and laws which actively go against the institutionalized discrimination that continues to disadvantage Black South Africans. This is both the job of the government and citizens. Until then, it is not only myopic to pin the country's hopes for change on a rugby team, but delusional.