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  • The Springbok Experience:South African Rugby Museum
  • Scott A.G.M. Crawford

The South African Rugby Museum opened on September 24, 2013, in an attractive two-tiered building overlooking a nicely manicured croquet lawn, not a rugby paddock. That being said, there are towering rugby posts at one corner of the lawn.

The ground floor of the Springbok Experience is clearly designed to welcome and engage youth. There are interactive stations where visitors are subjected to the sort of athletic scrutiny demanded of would-be Springboks. There is a hand–eye reaction test to measure potential catching and passing expertise and a series of tests to determine levels of strength, power, and fitness.

On the staircase leading to the second floor of Portswood House is a glorious action photograph of current Springbok player Bryan Habana flying through the air to dive over the try-line and score. Sporting museums can quickly find themselves highlighting individuals whose star appeal has been eroded by age, declining skills, or adverse publicity. In this situation, the Springbok Experience needs to be congratulated on its current topicality. On the same day that this writer visited the museum, Habana was playing for the Springboks against Australia.

Canon George Ogilvie is profiled at the entrance to the second floor. As headmaster at Diocesan College, he is credited with introducing rugby to South Africa in 1861. His nickname was "Gog"; and Gog's game, in its earliest form, was too violent, so he crafted his own version of rugby, which drew on elements transported from celebrated English public schools such as Harrow, Eton, and Winchester.

The museum endeavors to tell the story of the evolution of rugby without sugar coating. In the 1860s, missionaries promoted rugby football because they felt the game taught discipline and respectability. Nevertheless, "once white teams began to form, the black and coloured teams were kept segregated."

As a credible historical barometer, the Springbok Experience needs to be judged on its position regarding race, particularly the role of rugby during apartheid. In July 1949, when the New Zealand All Blacks visited South Africa, the museum exhibit notes, "Maori players were excluded from the team to fit in with the new political regime in South Africa."

The museum covers the various international protests between 1969 and 1992 carried out by those enraged by apartheid and racial segregation and seeking to halt any and all rugby interactions. The Springbok Experience, via live film coverage and a display of artifacts, gives a robust accounting of "the pinnacle of protester backlash" that happened in New Zealand (1981) during a Springbok tour. The "pinnacle" was a Springbok-All Blacks' test match in which a protester plane circled the rugby stadium and flour-bombed players. A visored helmet, a "wanted" (dead or alive) poster for Dannie Craven (arguably South Africa's most beloved rugby luminary), and the factoid that 40 percent of the country's police force were in attendance at the game powerfully highlight the gravity of the situation [End Page 242] and the intense opposition to international sporting links with South Africa during the apartheid era.

The Springbok Experience justifiably highlights and showcases the Springboks' 1995 Rugby World Cup victory, which occurred just three years after South Africa ended apartheid. President Nelson Mandela, who had spent twenty-seven years in prison, presents the white Afrikaner captain François Pienaar with the cup. Both are wearing the green-and-gold rugby jersey with the Springbok logo on the chest. It is critical to grasp the fact that, for decades, the Springbok jersey—for nonwhite South Africans—represented the Afrikaner way of life. The exultant and passionate exchange between Mandela and Pienaar and the symbolism of their bond are emphasized by two movie-poster-sized pictures of this encounter that grace the outside wall of the museum.

The Springbok Experience has neither a library nor a reading room. It also offers no sustained historical and sociocultural analyses. Primarily a tourist stop off, the Springbok Experience perhaps softens apartheid's shamefulness. It writes of rugby as "a sometimes divisive and ultimately unifying force." Contrast this, if you will, to the Apartheid Museum's (Johannesburg) blunt remembrance of the era:

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pp. 242-243
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