Sport, honesty and the nation

Many of us want our Rugby World Cup win to have lasting impact and continue the feeling of goodwill it generated amongst millions of South Africa.


Many of us want our Rugby World Cup win to have lasting impact and continue the feeling of goodwill it generated amongst millions of South Africa. We felt it in the lead up to the final, and strongly during the game, with people gathered throughout the country watching it. We felt it even more so as the final whistle blew, and again at the Springboks homecoming welcome at OR Tambo, followed by the victory parades.

Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa lifts the Webb Ellis Cup with Siya Kolisi after their side win the Rugby World Cup 2019

The joyous impact of the win was the best feeling of national pride our country has experienced in a long while, but there were two cautionary voices, none other than the captain, Siya Kolisi and the coach, Rassie Erasmus, two incredibly likeable, humble, honest, servant leaders. As the victory whistle was blown, they thanked the nation and expressed the beauty of celebrating victory as one diverse country, then they emphasised the need to move beyond the win, to put structures and programmes in place to create equal opportunity not only in rugby but in our society.

On arriving at OR Tambo, as quoted in the SA Rugby Mag, Rassie said: “We have to focus on making sure that everybody gets equal chances of playing, everybody gets good nutrition and everybody gets a fair chance. There are so many things that we have to fix…There are so many other things that can help the Springboks win consistently. There are so many bigger things that we have to fix. Let Siya and the boys enjoy today, but let’s keep it going.”

By ‘let’s keep it going’ he meant, ‘let’s keep unifying the nation with practical, tangible processes and changes that everyone can feel and from which everyone can benefit’.

It got me thinking and researching about sport and national pride, and I came across an interesting article titled: How to influence national pride. The Olympic medal index as a unifying narrative. The authors are Ivo van Hilvoorde, Agnes Elling and Ruud Stokvis, all members of the WJH Mulier Institute in the Netherlands.

It looks at Dutch national pride, but there are some useful lessons for South Africa about what international level or ‘elite’ sporting achievement can do for national pride. In the article they cite the results of a survey that looked at which aspects contribute to a sense of national pride in Dutch adults. Sporting performance came out tops, with 75%, followed by scientific and technological performance (74%); system of social security (56%); performance in art and literature (53%); economic performance (51%); democracy (47%); and honest and equal treatment of all groups in society (38%).

Many countries put sport at the top or high up on the national pride list and this offers a strong motivation for countries to invest in sport, achieve at an international level and boost national pride. If we think of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, we saw how President Nelson Mandela went out of his way to embrace the Springboks as a way of nation- and unity building at a time when the whole notion of being a Springbok was controversial. Many lauded Mandela for doing so but many others were of the view that in doing so he was perpetuating white domination rather than equity through a sport.

There has always been controversy around rugby and transformation in South Africa. Some of you might recall that the Springboks were the only sporting code that retained the Springbok emblem. Prior to 1994, if you were selected for any sport at an international level, you became a Springbok. However the emblem of the Springbok was seen to be divisive by millions of South Africans.

Rugby took the view it had to retain the Springbok emblem as it was a known and respected brand in the rugby world, in the same way that the All Blacks are.

And so it was that the Springboks won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, much of the country celebrated and the movie Invictus was made about the role of the game, President Mandela and Captain Francois Pienaar at this critical time. Twelve years later, in 2007, we won again. Once again it was controversial as many people said rugby was not transformed enough.

This continued into the 2015 World Cup. I wrote about this in a Leadership column at the time, quoting Oregan Hoskins, the then President of the South African Rugby Union (SARU) who wrote in an open letter to South Africa before the 2015 World Cup that: “No one needs to lecture us about the importance of transformation—we got there long ago.”

In the same letter he wrote that in KZN, Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga, only 3% of boys have access to rugby to school, and that the statistic is not much better in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Free State and Northern Cape, where only 5% have access. “If you don’t start at school you will never become a Springbok,” he says.

“Our game thirsts for outstanding players and whether one emerges in a township school or from a traditional rugby school you can be sure the system will find him and nurture him.”

My question then was; ‘Who is the system’? Who is taking responsibility for this? The system was clearly not doing its job if in the 2015 World Cup squad of 31 players; as only eight black players were considered good enough to be selected. Which is why statements like “we got there long ago”, even if well intentioned, was highly arrogant and not honest.

Come 2019, discussions about the performance of the Springboks ahead of the Rugby World Cup, were once again against the backdrop of transformation. About whether the side was transformed enough and what transformation in South Africa means. And when we won, we left this behind for a moment and celebrated, in the same way that we would celebrate if Bafana Bafana had taken first place in the world. In this regard, rugby enjoys a particular status as a multiple World Cup winner, and millions of South Africans feel huge pride about this.

Going back to the Olympic medal article, the authors ask and try to answer an interesting question: Can national pride be regarded as the effect of sport-related pride or does a sense of belonging to a nation precede, instead, the possibilities of sport in order to have ‘nationalistic effects’?

In other words, if our sports teams do well, can it give rise to a sport-related pride that has a positive effect on national pride? In the research they did, they take the view that a sense of national belonging is a necessary condition that precedes sport-related pride rather being as a result of it. This view is not inconsistent with what Rassie says. He says that when you win a major event it manifests in sporting pride at the time, but people soon go back to living their lives, and so one needs to be careful of making the link that winning on the sports field has a direct relation to increasing national pride.

Following a longitudinal study conducted in the Netherlands, the authors write:

Policy makers tend to endow top-level sports mainly with integrative power, based on populist notions, such as ‘sport bonds’. Geographical and civil dimensions of national identity are supposed to ‘overwrite’ other social markers of identification, such as gender, ethnicity/race and religion, at least temporarily. For example, both white and black South Africans recognised that winning the World Rugby Championship in 2007 and the organisation of the World Football Championship in 2010 were important symbolic milestones in the construction of national unity and reconciliation, even though rugby was deemed a symbol of Apartheid.

At the time of winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup, South Africa needed a win, and to an extent the notion that ‘sport bonds’ was true, and it did feel like a moment of national identity that could overwrite all our troubles. We were facing being downgraded to junk status, the country’s power utility is completely unstable, gender-based violence is out of control and there was little to feel euphoric about. We needed Siya and Rassie, we needed a good story.

The authors bear out the power of a good story in the article. They write: Singular events have a greater storytelling capacity than any medal counting could. For many Dutch spectators, the gold medal of long distance swimmer (10 kilometre marathon swimming) Maarten van der Weijden was one of the most cherished moments of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Not only was the race itself worth watching and ended in a spectacular sprint, but the entire story of Van der Weijden, who beat leukemia in 2002, gave his victory heroic elements that transcended the popularity of the specific swimming event itself.

Winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup is our singular event. But once the parade was over, then what? Do we continue to feel national pride, or does it fast dwindle if it is not a constant condition? The authors came up with a number of hypotheses in this regard, and I’ll discuss a few of them.

In the first hypothesis they found that Dutch sporting success in four large-scale international sporting events showed clear increases in sporting pride and some positive effects on well-being. Increases in general national pride were less clear cut.

Sports achievements could not be directly linked to ‘orange’ feelings [the colour of Dutch national pride] but they do seem to be important for national ‘identity work’ … as small ripples in a rather stable pattern of national identification.

This was further confirmed in the second hypothesis, in which the claim that national sports success is of greater influence on feelings of well-being and national sporting pride than on more general national pride, was confirmed. Watching international sport events, for most fans and consumers, is not only related to sport-specific aspects such as the drama and outcomes of the games, but also an important social event. It relates to pleasure and feelings of belonging with family and/or friends and appeals to other forms of social identification … citizens who may be ‘neutral’ or even ‘negative’ about national sport success may be drawn into a—short-lived—euphoria, without effecting more stable feelings of national pride.

In South Africa we felt the strong influence on well-being and national sporting pride during the Rugby World Cup.

We saw groups gather around the country to watch the game at big screen venues, in shebeens and homes. Even people who are not interested in rugby got caught up in the euphoria of the day. For that moment, the tensions in the country were largely set aside.

In the fourth hypothesis the authors write that differences were expected for gender, ethnicity and sports participation. The outcome is that general figures about national sporting pride were in fact equally high for women as for men, which may be explained by a (partial) feminisation in both elite sporting success and sports audiences.

They explain that in the recent Olympic Games (Sydney, Athens, Beijing), for example, most Dutch medals were won by female athletes.

However, they further found that men still seem to be more involved in- and prouder of football results than women.

The fifth hypothesis confirmed that the extent of national pride determines the sporting pride experienced more than that sports achievements lead to an increase in national pride. At the same time, international top-level sports achievements would certainly contribute to feelings of national pride, belonging and international prestige.

In other words, if you are already proudly South African, and we then go and win the Rugby World Cup, it has a much stronger impact on sporting pride, more so than if you have lower feelings of national pride and we win the Rugby World Cup.

The message is that a country cannot think that by focusing on sporting achievement it will lead to an increase in national pride, especially when its coming from a low base. It’s most certainly an important component of working towards achieving national pride, but as Rassie emphasises, to achieve this we need to make sure that we have the structures in place. We have to ensure that all our children have access to a good education and, in this case, to well-run sporting academies to create a culture of possibility, and a better, more equal country for all.

At the same time we need to be cautious about how we position sporting achievement. If it is pursued in a formalised, almost authoritarian way, it puts excessive pressure on young people to perform. It detracts from the love and enjoyment of the sport. Those who did not achieve at the highest level feel like failures while the stories of a few individuals who achieve are lauded.

It’s a complex balancing act with a range of possible unintended consequences but there is only one starting point. It is imperative that South Africa puts in place the long overdue broad base of well -run rugby and other sporting academies. We have to nurture talent and give all young people an equal chance rather than aiming for ‘miracle heroes’ who rise like Siya to top international sporting achievement despite their lack of opportunities.

Rassie says we cannot rely on the resilience of a few individuals who defy adversity. We are in a situation where the majority of youngsters don’t see a future. They don’t see their chance in life and many turn to violence and adverse behaviour. With academies in place they will have role models to whom they can actively aspire. They have to have opportunity and access to structures that help them be the best they can be.

The question has been asked whether someone like Siya would have been hungry enough to succeed if there had been an academy to nurture him? He might well have, some people simply have it in them, irrespective of their background. But this is not the issue, the issue is, as Rassie puts it, there are so many bigger things we need to fix in South Africa, and let’s use the impetus of the victory to keep going.

The core quality required on this journey is honesty and servant leadership. It’s the bedrock of Rassie and Siya’s success. Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira, the third most capped Springbok of all time says that in his 11 years of international rugby, which includes 116 test appearances, Rassie is the most honest and open Springbok coach he has ever played under.

South Africa desperately needs honesty and servant leadership, and the 2019 Rugby World Cup team epitomised this: an honest coach, honest captain, honest players, and an honest message about the hard work that needs to be put in to succeed as a team, organisation or country. Rassie has worked hard for this victory all his life: he has paid his dues in all the rugby structures and ranks, as both a player and coach.

Out of the nine winning rugby world cup coaches, three were international rugby players themselves, and Rassie was one of them. What it emphasises is that you need to go through the ranks if you want to be the best. Rassie has done this. We hope that with him at the rugby management helm now, there will be an opportunity to take rugby through all the structures, from the ground up, for all players. But he cannot do it alone. The same applies to all the structures in South Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa cannot do it alone. If we want to develop a strong, successful nation, we need to start developing national pride by creating opportunities for the whole nation to shine. 

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