With the rugby transformation debate raging in South Africa and Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and the South African Rugby Union being criticised for the lily-white Springbok team, The Con received this insight from a former black rugby player. It is a piece that uses years of experience within the South African rugby fraternity as a starting point to speak about the experiences of structural racism that black rugby players in the country face everyday. It is a flight of fancy that aims to put the reader in the boots of a black rugby player on the fringes of the Springbok squad – someone who just can’t get a game. It explores how black players are expected to keep quiet about being overlooked twenty-one years after democracy. The author who has been involved in rugby for many years, has chosen not to be named.
It’s early afternoon on a winter day in Durban. Winters here are more like perfect summer days anywhere else. I am perspiring; it must be the nerves. A rugby ball bounces right next to me, and a burly white lad runs after it towards me. He greets me and I greet him back. He asks where I come from and I tell him a school in Zululand. “You speak so well, though,” he retorts.
I am at a rugby practice on a Monday afternoon. I have watched this game before but never played it. This is a secret I will not disclose to anyone today at practice. I watched as a young boy when former president Nelson Mandela appeared on the field in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, but it was a sport I did not know. Rugby was the sport of the oppressor and black people were not allowed to play it.
Yet today I am rugby obsessed. I have studied the rules of the game, I watch it religiously on television, and I have replayed that recording of the 1995 final countless times. It was only natural that one day I’d want to get out on the field myself.
The warm-up includes free running and some messing around with the ball. My ball skills are shocking, of course. We run drills. I am assigned to a group called “the forwards”. I mess up every move we try do. It suffices to say I am not endearing myself to anyone as the coach makes us all run across the field for every mistake we make.
In this, my first practice, I learn a few valuable lessons. I learn about my position, “prop”. I have never heard this name before, let alone what a prop does on the field. I was told what I was, no discussion. It was my bulky size and lack of height that sealed the deal for me.
But the rugby field is like that. On the rugby field you don’t have an opinion as a player. I learnt to agree with everything. Players are encouraged to be a part of the setup or be cast out. Everyone is told what to do, and they do it. It’s not an environment where one questions. Ideas are not welcome here.
I will not forget that first day. The next 10 years of playing rugby only served to entrench my first impression of the game. It is an establishment for the few, reinforcing tradition as a tool against transformation, very much in the service of that few. It is a place of no accountability and no questions posed towards authority. It is a brotherhood that extends far beyond the four corners of the field.
Ask former Springbok coach Pieter de Villiers if you don’t believe me. He can hardly hold down a job at an amateur club, but he is the former coach of the national team.
It’s now years later. I am in the peak of my career. I have worked hard to get to the provincial setup and gradually make it into a super rugby side. I have received a few international caps coming off the bench, but mostly I just carry tackle bags. I have taken the time to understand the Afrikaans lineout calls, because that is the only way.
I have learnt the rules now, the unspoken truth. I am to do as I am told. I must just appreciate that I am part of the squad. I have learnt that not all payers are equal. I see how some white players can do no wrong. Some players refuse to share a room with me. It is explained to me as their personal choice. I am told they are not racist.
I chat with mostly everyone, but I know there is only a handful I can rely on. We have a common goal, a common pain. We are called “quota players” and are derided as not good enough for this level. I am saddened by my constant omission from the squad. I ride the bench. They keep telling me my chance will come. I’m ready to play and I have sacrificed a lot to be here. The road is tougher for me. My debut was the last two minutes of a lost match.
It’s time to go to another corporate function and speak of what a happy camp we are. It’s just another day.
I’m a black Springbok.
Main Pic: The South African rugby community does not like colouring outside the lines by Maxtremus