“Their country is on its backside… crime is awful, the corruption in government is absolutely ginormous. Kolisi was asked afterward: ‘Did you always dream when you were a little boy of winning the World Cup?’ He said: ‘No, all I was interested in was where my next meal was coming from’.” – Stephen Jones of London’s Sunday Times on The Ruck Podcast, November 3, 2019.
Rassie Erasmus and Siya Kolisi’s Springboks have shone a bright light on South Africa’s problems, and they used one of the biggest stages in the world to do so, by winning the Rugby World Cup.
Between them, they spoke of the huge socio-economic problems we face, of hunger, unemployment and crime. Of what it means to be delivered to the state for succour and support, and how desperate some in the country have become for hope.
They didn’t do it to bad-mouth the country, or to bring it into disrepute or to slag it off – as some ethno-racial nationalists are wont to do when they travel to Trump’s America. They did it while showing real and genuine love and deep concern for the tortured nation on this southern tip of Africa.
South Africa couldn’t have had a better couple of days.
Hours before Kolisi’s Springboks marched to victory in Tokyo, Moody’s Investor Services gave the country a reprieve from junk investment grade status, and handed us a very last shot at making things better. Time is in all probability against us, and political will has been in extremely short supply.
But, like the Boks, we have a chance.
Whereas, in past World Cup victories, those where the William Webb Ellis Trophy was held aloft by then presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, this time around President Cyril Ramaphosa did it as the head of state of a country in a deep malaise.
Mandela was forging a nation, Mbeki was stablising it, Ramaphosa needs to save it.
Erasmus and Kolisi’s words did not go unnoticed.
Commentators, writers and journalists from the world over – and the last couple of days did spawn some wonderful sports journalism – made a point of refererring to the dire straits in which South Africa finds itself.
British newspapers, Australian television, New Zealand media – all wrote about the Springboks defying enormous odds to reach the top.
At Sunday’s World Rugby Awards, at which the Boks was named team of the year, Erasmus coach of the year and flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit player of the year, the humble Springboks were feted as a remarkable team from a dysfunctional backwater who made it to the top.
Writing in The Observer on Sunday, Andy Bull argued that Kolisi and his team had “so much more” to play for than any Englishman could imagine.
“Listening to South Africa’s captain and coach talk about what this victory meant in the minutes after they had won it, you began to understand exactly what England were up against and the way the Springboks were thinking about it, England had lost the match before it even began.”
On Friday, in their leader, The Times of London, explained to its readers how the story of the Rainbow Nation went awry and how economic inequality persists: “These divisions have been deepened by the disastrous legacy of the former president Jacob Zuma’s nine years of economic mismanagement. This saddled the country with soaring levels of unemployment, inflation and crime.”
And on Monday, The Times’ Cape Town correspondent, under the headline “Troubled South Africa intoxicated by win”: “For a nation worn down by political corruption, rolling blackouts, poverty, record unemployment and 57 murders a day, the triumphant Springboks have provided a joyous distraction.”
Of course, our problems predate this win and many of them predate the current political leadership.
But when, post-1994, we appeared on the world stage we never did so as a basket-case, but a resilient people constructing something special.
State capture, grand corruption and the gross mismanagement of the state over the last decade have changed that. And the Ramaphosa government’s prevarication and hesitation to do something about it has taken us to the brink of what is approaching disaster.
Last week’s medium-term budget policy statement has set out in stark terms where we are and what needs to be done. Ramaphosa must use the momentum generated by the Boks to follow through and take those dastardly and difficult decisions and get us out of the rut.
To see South Africa, mighty and proud, being reduced to a country that feasts off the scraps that a sporting victory gives is desperately sad.
To hear Erasmus, on a world sporting stage, talk about family members being murdered and Kolisi about scrounging his next meal, takes us back to the harsh reality of South Africa today.
The Boks gave us enormous and undbridled pleasure.
Its up to the politicians to show resolve and backbone and ensure that the next time we win the Webb Ellis Trophy, we can enjoy it for what it is – a sport.