9:22am, 12 May 2022
“They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” When Karl Marx penned his 1851 essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he did not have rucks and mauls on his mind. But there is an interesting parallel between French coups and class struggles, and a festering imbalance in the world of rugby.
World Rugby, the game’s overlords, saw fit to grant Australia and the United States of America the right to host the next two men’s World Cups in 2027 and 2031 respectively. The latter decision is a laudable one. The US has long been portrayed as a sleeping giant and the commercial appeal is obvious. Win over hearts and minds across the Atlantic and rugby union would reach new heights. We may even get a half decent PlayStation game as a result.
But the former stinks of rugby’s oldest malaise that champions the interests of the bourgeoisie and sidelines the proletariat. And if you’re in any way connected to South African rugby, you’d be forgiven for wanting to storm World Rugby’s headquarters in Dublin and call for a revolution.
The next opportunity South Africa will get to host a tournament they have already won three times will be in 2035. That is exactly 40 years since the last time they did so. Coincidentally, 40 years separates Marx’s aforementioned essay and South Africa’s first rugby match, against the British Lions in 1891. As the German philosopher said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
To put that gap in time in perspective, three of the 2019 World Cup winning Springboks weren’t born when Nelson Mandela handed Francois Pienaar the Webb Ellis Cup in one of the sport’s most enduring moments. As many as 26 of the 33 who triumphed in Japan were under the age of five. Schalk Brits, the most senior figure of the squad, was 14.
How many children were raised on the rainbow tinted mythology of that glorious day in Johannesburg, when a bunch of semi-professionals representing a fractured nation on the mend beat the indomitable All Blacks and took a giant leap towards unity? How many rugby fans in the Republic closed their eyes and knew, deep down in their marrow, that one day they’d get to welcome the world again? Surely it wouldn’t be too long. The door was left on the latch. A place was kept at the table. The guests would be back soon. They promised they would.
That promise was made before the 2023 bid. In 2017 the Rugby World Cup Limited board submitted a comprehensive evaluation report of the three nations in the mix. Based on certain criteria including host cities, tournament infrastructure and commercial commitments, South Africa received a rating of 78.97, edging out France (75.88) and Ireland (72.25). But the winner would be elected by a vote. Despite the governing body’s recommendations, France won the deciding round by a score of 24 to 15.
The news flattened the South African rugby public as well as the country’s government that had stumped up a fortune in ensuring that the bid was successful. Given the decade of waste under the corrupt former president Jacob Zuma, and the economic pitfalls of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is hard to imagine any future leader taking a similar risk.
Incredulous after the defeat, Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby said, “We are bitterly disappointed at this decision and would like to apologise to the people and government of South Africa for raising their hopes.”
It was not Alexander that owed his people an apology. He had done all he could. Well, almost. He did not account for a knife in the back delivered by unions that had said one thing but had done something else. There were votes promised but undelivered. What’s more, Rugby Africa, the continent’s governing body, voted against South Africa’s bid. Twisting the knife further is the fact that the body’s head offices are in a Cape Town building paid for by SA Rugby.
Rugby Africa perhaps had their head turned by French euros. The Africa Cup, the mini-tournament that will determine the continent’s final representative in the 2023 World Cup, will be staged in France. As South African journalist Brendan Nel points out in New Frame, “France will pay all the costs for the tournament, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed in Africa that there is a desire to have a French-speaking African country represent the continent at the World Cup.”
Money talks louder than loyalty and, even if SA Rugby’s decision makers were so inclined to make backhanded deals and slip envelopes under hotel doors, the country’s struggling rand was never going to prove decisive. The legacies of the Springboks, of Mandela and of 1995 might stir souls, but they don’t grease palms. Avoiding the risk of further embarrassment, World Rugby rescinded the democratic process. World Cups would now be awarded, not earned by a popular vote.
It would be remiss not to mention other factors that count against South Africa. It is a dangerous place. Only blind jingoists would deny this. And though rape and murder statistics are largely confined to areas where tourists generally avoid, every sporting showpiece, from the 2010 Fifa World Cup, to the most recent English cricket tour in 2020, is littered with stories of pickpocketings and violent muggings. Public transport is also a mess which compounds matters, often restricting visitors to secluded oases of privilege.
But the exchange rate is a dream for anyone spending pounds, euros, dollars or yen, the food is sublime, the wine is even better, the natural beauty is breathtaking, the weather is idyllic, the stadiums are world class, the rugby heritage is storied and the fans, those black, white, brown, Zulu, Afrikaans, English, Xhosa fans who comprise the most diverse rugby supporter base anywhere in the world, make it all worthwhile. This shameful snub is not just a loss for South Africa. The entire rugby ecosystem will miss out on something special.
Perhaps I’m biased. I remember the ecstasy of 1995. I was just seven-years-old and spent most of the final playing with friends in the backyard. But even my prepubescent brain could grasp the significance of that moment. I could not comprehend the evils of apartheid and my white skin sheltered me from its horrors, but I could tell we were forging a new identity as a nation. My father’s tears and my mother’s joy conveyed a palpable sense that something momentous had taken place.
For 40 years the only South Africans who will witness a Rugby World Cup will be expatriates or the wealthy. Marx would no doubt be fuming. And so, with this latest insult, those who wear the green and gold must represent the rest of us as we cannot represent ourselves.
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