Tuesday, 2 December 2008

When is a Springbok not a Springbok?

I understand that the South Africa Rugby Union side will no longer have the Springbok as its crest on the left-hand side of the shirt. It will be replaced by the national flower of South Africa - the King Protea - which adorns the shirts of South Africa's other national sporting sides. A smaller version of the Springbok will appear on the right of the shirt.

So you're probably wondering why this story makes it onto a politics blog? Well, I will tell you. The rugby side, up to the 1990s, was a manifestation of the apartheid regime, with only white players allowed to don the Springbok jersey and some in South Africa - including politicians and sportsmen alike - have called the Springbok "divisive". However, opposition to the move comes from across racial lines, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bryan Habana, the speedy South Africa winger both supporting the Springbok and suggesting that the issue is a minor one - that there are bigger issues to be fighting over.

When South Africa first won the Rugby World Cup on their reinstatement to the sport in 1995, then-President Nelson Mandela presented the trophy to the triumphant South African captain Francios Pienaar wearing his number 6 jersey (above). This was seen as an image of national unity - of bringing the nation together, both black and white, and triumphing as a united nation. This stopped any ideas of changing the symbol at that time.

However, the side that won the RWC in 1995 contained only one non-white player - winger Chester Williams - while only 2, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen were in the side that most recently won the tournament in 2007. Suggestions that rugby remains the preserve of the white man continue to dominate South African rugby, and it was felt that the changing of the symbol - while retaining the Springbok in a smaller capacity - would reduce this.

I'm not convinced it will, and I'm not sure how I feel about the issue. Sure, I deplore what happened under apartheid and all that it represented, don't get me wrong. I'm just not convinced that changing the symbol of South African rugby from an animal to a flower is evidence that progress is being made - they need change at grassroots level.

As a student of nationalism I know how much symbols matter, of course they do. I don't make light of it for any reason other than this: if the symbol is to change, then peoples' minds have to too. Otherwise, what is the point?


PS - If the symbol of South African rugby is to become the Protea, are they no longer to be known as the Springboks? And if so... will England, with their 42-6 defeat last week, be the last side that the "Springboks" ever beat?


PJ 2 December 2008 at 10:40  

When it's lost it's r..."Spingbok?!"

Malc 2 December 2008 at 10:54  

Yeah... thanks for that(!)

That'll teach me not to proofread...

Sam 2 December 2008 at 22:52  

The Springboks did as much as anyone in South Africa to publicly reject the ideology of apartheid. That World Cup win, and more importantly the symbolism you talked about in showing Mandela & Pienaar together, was the aspirational appeal of a new South Africa, while the Truth & Reconciliation Committees were the salve on historical wounds.

It does seem, from an outsiders point of view, that the Springboks have worked hard enough already to cast off their Afrikaner image. As Richard Williams argues, that work is "made all the more powerful by the acknowledgement of its former associations".

This decision smacks of an empty political gesture by the ANC, under-fire on many fronts, which has struggled to translate the aspirations of the early 1990's into real progress.

History cannot be airbrushed out of the picture, no matter how deplorable. That will only hinder such necessary progress.

McChatterer 3 December 2008 at 09:58  

They will always be known as the boks. There's no kiwi on New Zealand's shirt, for example.

Malc 3 December 2008 at 11:54  

New Zealand are kinda better known as the All Blacks, for their, um... black shirts, shorts and socks. Also, can you really imagine calling 15 HUGE New Zealanders "Fern"?

Sam 3 December 2008 at 13:39  

In depth analysis from the chattering classes there. You'd think what with New Labour-baiting being basically an open goal these days, people would take the time to think before they blogged.

The point Malc was making, and others were replying to, was what the symbolism of the Springboks actually means, and whether they should always be known as such.

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