- Sport and Post-Apartheid South Africa:Revisiting The Race Game
In 1999, Douglas Booth’s The Race Game: Sport and Politics in South Africa was awarded the North American Society for Sport History book award.1 The Race Game remains an essential text that considers sport and politics in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Twenty years on from the first free and fair democratic elections in South Africa, sport remains a useful lens, in terms of transformation and redress, through which to consider South African society more broadly. Booth noted early in The Race Game that “segregated sport was one of the most visible racial policies” in pre-1994 South Africa (p. 4). Issues of legislated discrimination and segregation no longer beset South African sport, yet race in sport remains an important component of South African society more broadly [End Page 331] in the post-1994 era. I continue to use The Race Game as a source of reference in my attempts to understand the complexities of South African sport and society.
The abiding image of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected black president of South Africa, wearing the number 6 jersey of the white Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, remains a poignant moment in South African and global sport history. The 1995 Rugby Union World Cup victory by the overwhelmingly all-white Springboks remains a powerful symbol in post-apartheid South Africa for many sports fans in the country and around the world. Clint Eastwood’s (2009) Hollywood film, Invictus, based on John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation (2008), has dramatized the significance of Mandela’s gesture and the South African victory.2 At the time, I was a young undergraduate sociology student at the University of Pretoria. I was not particularly keen on rugby despite having played it briefly at the prestigious Pretoria Boys High School (PBHS).3 My sporting passion and professional interest was and still remains association football.4 It was very difficult not to be swept up by the emotion and excitement as the tournament progressed, despite the boorish image the Springbok team desperately tried to dispense of. Many of the players struggled to sing the new national anthem “Nkosi Sikekekl’ Afrika” during the pre-match ceremony and were visibly uncomfortable. The composition of the team meant fourteen of the fifteen players were white, spurred on by stadia primarily made up of white South Africans and, in many instances, flying the old apartheid era flag. Mandela’s appearance at the final in the Springbok jersey temporarily dampened my cynicism towards the Springbok team. My newfound enthusiasm for the Springboks was short-lived. After the South African victory, as part of a group of friends, we celebrated on Esselen Street, the major thoroughfare in the Sunnyside neighborhood. Thousands of black and white South Africans joined the street party and celebrated the victory. We, however, found ourselves in a particularly threatening situation when a group of young white Afrikaners attempted to set our (new) South African flag on fire. The ensuing scene of two groups of white men fighting over the new South African flag has remained a vivid memory in two decades of post-apartheid South Africa for me.
In The Race Game, Booth concludes by stating, “[H]istory will conspire to preserve the Springbok as a symbol of an unsavory ideology underpinned by more than three centuries of history. There is plenty of play left in South Africa’s race game” (p. 221). It never ceases to amaze me that each time I return home to South Africa to undertake research and visit family, I am constantly struck by the numbers of black South Africans who wear the Springbok jersey. This is not only on match days but even when South Africa’s association football team Bafana Bafana play, the Springboks shirt is seen everywhere. The Springbok symbol has been appropriated and seemingly made inclusive. Yet race matters in South Africa and race in sport remains a dominant feature of South African society. The three most popular played and watched male sports remain association football, cricket, and rugby union in South Africa. Yet any...