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Eusebius McKaiser: The Springbok Debate isn’t Only about Rugby – National Identity is at Stake

Could I Vote DA?Eusebius McKaiser, political commentator and author of Could I Vote DA?: A Voter’s Dilemma, recently wrote a column for The Star titled “Do we have a common national identity?”

In the article, McKaiser takes a closer look at the heated debates about the lack of transformation in rugby on one hand, and the lack of support for the Boks among a significant number of South Africans on the other.

McKaiser says, “I don’t think the Springbok supporters in this debate only care about rugby for its own sake”. There is a perception that something bigger is at stake: “nationalism, unity, and the prospects of a common national identity”.

Read the column, shared on Facebook by the author:

The Springboks seem to be generating a lot of interesting public debate. Many South Africans support the Boks, even while some have serious misgivings about the lack of transformation in the team.

Still others vehemently dislike the team because they see it as representative of an enduring apartheid legacy. And then there are some people who are indifferent.

I am not fundamentally interested in adjudicating between these views since everyone is entitled to a perspective on the national team. What is noteworthy, however, is how the debates get so heated. It is not dispassionate, and often results in mudslinging between interlocutors within seconds of a discussion being started.

This raises the obvious question of what is going on here such that this subject – rugby – should generate so much heat. No doubt there are many different factors at play here: rugby is a proxy for the overrepresentation of whites in many parts of South African life and so a broader transformation debate is rehearsed through discussions of rugby; and, more universally, national sporting teams everywhere tend to evoke deep passion in disagreeing citizen fans.

But I think there is an additional factor here that goes back to the 1995 Rugby World Cup win that we have romanticised ever since. We have projected Rainbowism onto the Springboks. Imagery such as Nelson Mandela in a Springbok jersey have reinforced this Rainbowism. And since 1995 we have believed in the power of the Springboks to galvanise a people with a deeply divided past.

What all of this translates into is something like a common national identity. Some of us are so anxious at the thought that we are still deeply divided that we grasp at opportunities to reinforce the myth that we have much in common.

For better or worse, those who buy into Rainbowism are particularly the ones who get mortally upset when a fellow South African says they do not support the Bokke. These Rainbow myth proponents get even more upset if someone explicitly states the reason they do not support the Bokke is because the team is still mostly white and the sport is shockingly untransformed still.

But I don’t think the Springbok supporters in this debate only care about rugby for its own sake. That would not be enough to explain the heat in these debates. There is a perception, I reckon, that more is at stake: nationalism, unity, and the prospects of a common national identity are all at stake.

I almost feel sorry for Heyneke Meyer. No, no, not in the sense that I dig him or respect him. Frankly he should be fired already. What I mean is I feel sorry for the burden imposed on him and the squad. Because rugby has this unhealthy association with Rainbowism, every anxious patriot wants the Springboks to revive the good vibes of 1995. It is not merely about winning. It is, for some, about holding a fragile nation together. No sporting code, or team, should be burdened with such a childish desire for nationalistic fervour.

All of this has struck me over the past few days as Heritage Day has come and gone. Some braai. Others are offended by Jan Braai. Some of us still wake up to actually celebrate Heritage Day. And many of us simply sleep in, caring neither for Heritage Day nor Braai Day.

But all of these tropes in our public debate of late raises a question that the Apartheid Museum has asked me to moderate this week: “Is there a common national South African identity?” I think the prospects of an affirmative answer are dim. We are linguistically, ideologically, politically, geographically and culturally both deeply divided and just too diverse a people for a single narrative of who and what we are to be possible.

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know why many of us wish it were not so. We associate apartheid with conflict and difference. And so differences strike many people as inherently divisive. But I think we need to examine this fear.

A fear that is capable of being explained isn’t justified just on account of being reasonable. The sooner we come to grips with what it means to live in a pluralistic society, one that celebrates and affirms differences, the sooner we will calm down about not having much in common with each other. At that point we will hopefully stop demanding of the Springboks to induce nationalism tears in us. And the sooner we will not see someone as an existential threat if they do not want to support the Bokke.

In the meantime we need to rehearse how to have these debates without huffing and puffing. It’s okay to disagree.

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