The Early History of Rugby in South Africa

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Prior to the passage of apartheid laws both Black and White South Africans played rugby, albeit separately. After the onset of apartheid Black South Africans were segregated from their White countrymen and denied access to rugby pitches and training facilities. During South Africa's hosting of the Rugby World Cup in 1995 Nelson Mandela used the sport and the Springbok symbol to help overcome the legacy of apartheid. This article traces how race relations in South Africa influenced the trajectory of the sport from its inception in 1862 to the present.

On 21 August 1862 the headmaster of Bishop's College Canon George Ogilvie organized the first official rugby match in South Africa. The match took place at Green Point in Cape Town and was played between the Army and the Civil service. Only White South Africans participated that day - both British and Afrikaners.

In 1906-1907 South Africa fielded its first national rugby team on a tour of the British Isles. The all-White team was composed of Afrikaners and British colonial South Africans. The tour helped erase ill-will that had existed between the two groups since the bloody Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902. The English media referred to the team as the Springboks - an anglicized version of the team's self entitled Afrikaans nickname, the Springbokken.

Participation in rugby was not limited to White South Africans for long. By the late nineteenth century some Blacks had adopted rugby as an element of their identity. In 1896 a celebration was held in honour of H.C. Msikinya for his acceptance into Wilberforce University. At the party Msikinya listed his membership in the Rovers Rugby Football club amongst his various social accomplishments.

Black rugby match, date unknown. Source: Paul Weinberg collection. Permission:

Soon after White South Africans formed rugby's first official governing bodies Black South Africans followed suit. In 1889 the Whites-only South African Rugby Board was founded. Eight years later the South African Coloured Rugby Football Board was founded to organize and oversee club matches between Black South Africans at the regional level.

Rugby played an important role in weakening the divisions between various Black religious groups in the Cape. Matches drew women, men and children from different religious backgrounds as spectators. Community members collaborated with one another and raised money for their respective clubs through activities such as dances. Matches also engendered a sense of mutual respect amongst players for the toughness and bravery of their opponents, even though club membership was strictly divided along religious lines.

From the outset rugby brought South Africans together. Just half a decade after the British had thrown Afrikaners into concentration camps - during the Anglo-Boer War - the two groups played alongside one another under the Springbok banner. The sport also facilitated social interaction amongst the various religious groups of the country's Black inhabitants. Early on rugby demonstrated a capacity to heal wounds and establish commonalities amongst South Africans.

However at times rugby's unifying capacity was ignored and South Africans chose instead to use the sport as an instrument of oppression. During much of the twentieth century rugby in South Africa was hi-jacked and the sport's healing powers were forgotten. Racist ideology and legislation prevented White and Black South Africans from playing the game together until 1976, when the apartheid regime took its reluctant first steps toward sporting reform. Even after the reforms of 1976 Black South Africans faced unofficial barriers to sporting equality such as limited access to training facilities and inadequate nutrition.

Rugby’s role in early South African history was ambiguous. At times the sport brought seemingly disparate South Africans together. At other times the sport reinforced barriers between South Africans, necessitating the formation of two racially segregated governing bodies. One thing about rugby in South Africa would become clear throughout the course of its history. Rugby did not unify or divide the country's inhabitants so much as the meanings attached to it. And no group attached more meaning to rugby than the Afrikaners.

Rugby and the Springbok Symbol in Afrikaner Identity and Politics

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century rugby and the Springbok symbol became linked to Afrikaner nationalism and politics. Afrikaners viewed the success of the Springboks in international test play as a reflection of their accomplishments as a civilization. The Afrikaner love of the team enabled former players to use their sporting stature to launch into politics, and nearly all former Springboks supported the National Party – the eventual architects of apartheid.

Many Springboks and National Party members were also associated with an organization called the Broederbond. The Broederbond was a secret brotherhood of male Afrikaners whose sole aim was to advance the well being of their people. The group played a crucial role in mobilizing Afrikaners during the months leading up to the National Party's victory in the national elections of 1948.

Upon their election the National Party - with the unofficial support of the Broederbond - extended the exclusive policies of apartheid into the Springbok program. In 1950 the National Party passed the Group Areas Act defining the separate geographic areas within which different South African racial groups could reside. Three years later they passed the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, effectively segregating all public areas in South Africa – including rugby pitches.

Springboks,1965. Source: Museum Africa Permission:

Segregation along racial boundaries denied Black South Africans access to the top level facilities and training that would enable them to represent South Africa in a Springbok jersey. This effect was surely intentional. The National Party envisioned the Springbok symbol as a representation of the values and characteristics of the Afrikaner people. In their minds allowing Black players to don the sacred jersey was a step toward the erosion of these values. The Springbok had come to symbolize more than rugby excellence to the hard-line Afrikaner – it had come to symbolize racial superiority.

However, South African rugby's racist disposition was not able to maintain itself. Much like apartheid the sport faced mounting pressure to change from both the country's inhabitants and the international community.

SAN-ROC and SACOS: Steps toward Sporting Reform in South Africa

The South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC) was formed in 1963 - one year before the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The group decried the fact that only Whites were allowed to represent South Africa at the Olympics and called for a boycott of the country from the 1964 games.

SAN-ROC's agitation for non-racial sport within South Africa made them a target. The group's first president Dennis Brutus was jailed on Robben Island and several of its subsequent leaders were either killed or imprisoned by the apartheid regime. Their sacrifices were not in vain. South Africa was suspended from the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo by the International Olympic Committee as a result of its apartheid policies.

In 1970 all Blacks within South Africa had their national citizenships revoked by the enacting of the Bantu Homeland Citizens Act. The act replaced Black South Africans' national citizenships with forced citizenship of the Bantustan designated to their respective ethnic group. In response to increasing internal pressure the apartheid regime extended multi-nationalism to the club level in 1976. The reform meant that Blacks with Bantustan citizenship were officially allowed to participate in the same sporting organizations as whites - pending special permission.

However, few did. Even after the reforms of 1976 Blacks in South Africa faced significant barriers to sporting equality. Many did not have transportation to the remote facilities where Whites trained. Many more were too malnourished to practice with the same intensity as the well-fed Whites.

In 1973 the South African Council on Sport (SACOS) was formed. The group called for sporting reform on a domestic level, advocating non-racial – as opposed to multi-national – development of sport. SACOS argued that the reform of 1976 was a guise intended to appease the international community while maintaining separate racial development in sports. The group advocated for more fundamental change in South Africa. Their slogan was 'No normal sport in an abnormal society.' SACOS leaders and members were persecuted by the apartheid regime's forces but never lost sight of their goal - colour blind sports development in South Africa.

Groups such as SAN-ROC and SACOS represented important steps toward bringing about change in South Africa. Although they used sports as a medium, their message of fundamental equality for Black South Africans transcended all areas. The groups made clear to the apartheid regime that they would not be silenced by intimidation or force.

Apartheid and Springbok Rugby's Path toward Crisis

Rugby did not escape South Africa's apartheid-era sporting controversy. In 1965 the Springboks had a successful tour of New Zealand. After the tour Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd of the National Party announced that future New Zealand rugby teams visiting South Africa would not be allowed to include Maori players.

The announcement was a slap in the face to the International Rugby Board (IRB) and New Zealand's rugby program. For these two groups, world class skill was the only prerequisite for representing one's country on the international stage. If a Black South African or a Maori New Zealander were good enough to make their national squads, then they had every right to represent their country on the pitch. In response to Verwoerd's announcement New Zealand's national rugby team - the All Blacks - cancelled their scheduled 1967 tour of South Africa.

New Zealand's cancellation of their South African tour prompted a shift in South African sporting policy in 1967. In an attempt to maintain rugby relations with international rivals, Prime Minister John Vorster proclaimed that the National Party would no longer prescribe rules about the racial composition of sports teams visiting South Africa.

The announcement was controversial. It caused a faction of hard-line conservative Afrikaners to break away from the National Party and form a new political organization in 1969 - the Restored National Party. In a Congressional meeting that same year the party's first leader Albert Hertzog voiced his concern that the admission of Maori All Blacks into South Africa would lead to them dancing with Afrikaner girls at social events. These hard-line Afrikaners preferred to remain in sporting isolation than to allow Maori men a dance with their daughters.

South Africa's rugby leaders faced pressure from all sides during the 60's and 70's. The majority of the country's White inhabitants – save the hard-line Afrikaners mentioned above - were hungry for Springbok rugby. But many of the team's traditional rivals had drifted away as a result of South Africa's racist policies. The country's Black inhabitants saw the Springboks as a symbol of apartheid, and groups such as SACOS advocated for fundamental sporting reform within South Africa. Much like apartheid society Springbok rugby was on a path toward crisis.

Apartheid and Springbok Rugby's International Isolation

South Africa's rugby isolation reached its apex during the 1980's. In 1981 the Springboks toured New Zealand. Every match between the Springboks and All Blacks generated protest. Many New Zealanders had come to view the accommodation of a South African sports team as a step backward. They simply did not want their All Blacks competing against a nation stuck in a racist frame of mind. The second match between the Springboks and All Blacks was cancelled because hundreds of protestors occupied the pitch.

South Africa was banned from the IRB from 1984-1992 as a result of the country's continuation of apartheid policies. The tour of 1981 was the last official international test rugby the Springboks played until 1992. This meant the country was excluded from the first ever Rugby World Cup held in 1987. Even hard-line Afrikaners became increasingly frustrated at the international boycott of the Springboks. The former president of SACOS Norman Middleton accurately summed up the National Party's position on international rugby competition nearly a decade earlier;

'I don't think that the Government could care less about such sports as cricket and soccer. They don't really mean much to the true Afrikaner. Therefore the expulsion of the country from international competition doesn't mean too much. But rugby is different. Rugby is the Afrikaner's second religion.' (Middleton, 1976)

South Africa's rugby isolation confronted Afrikaners with a paradox. Afrikaners saw Springbok success at the international level as a reflection of their superiority as a people. However, the Springboks were no longer able to demonstrate that superiority so long as Afrikaners continued to treat Black South Africans as inferior.

The world around and within South Africa was changing but the country's government continued to hold the nation in a stagnant past. South African rugby was suffering the burden of the historic symbols that had been attached to it. The Springbok was in need of rehabilitation.

In 1988 - as the centenary of the SARB loomed - Springbok rugby leaders Danie Craven and Louis Luyt knew that change was necessary. They organized meetings with representatives of both the non-racial South African Rugby Union and the African National Congress (ANC) to discuss the future trajectory of the sport. After three years of negotiations the groups came to an agreement and formed the South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU) on 19 January 1992. South Africa had finally established a unified, non-racial governing body for rugby.

Although rugby was now governed by a non-racial body, perceptions of the game did not change over night. Black South Africans still viewed the Springbok as a symbol of apartheid. Afrikaners still viewed it as a symbol of their racial superiority. These perceptions were reinforced in 1992 when the Springboks faced the All Blacks at Ellis Park stadium for their first international rugby match in eight years. Afrikaner fans waved old South African flags and sung the apartheid anthem Die Stem. It would take both the visionary leadership of Nelson Mandela and a bit of sporting fortune to rally the rainbow nation behind rugby.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup: Rugby as a Road to Racial Reconciliation

On 27 April 1994 South Africa held its first all-race elections. The 1994 elections marked the end of apartheid and the country's transition into a full democracy. It was a time of uncertainty for all South Africans. The young nation sought to establish a new direction but many questions remained unanswered. How could South Africa's various races unite under a single banner with the wounds of apartheid still festering? How could Black South Africans rise above the legacy of a political system that had oppressed them for so long? The first steps toward the answer of these questions required the leadership of one of history's most incredible individuals.

In April 1994 Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa's first Black president. His inauguration took place on 10 May 1994 in the capital city of Pretoria. From 1964-1990 Mandela had been imprisoned by the apartheid regime for his involvement with the ANC. Ironically, this made him the perfect candidate to lead South Africa towards racial reconciliation.

Mandela had an almost divine capacity for forgiveness. A man who had been imprisoned for nearly three decades - for standing up for the basic human rights of his people – called upon Black South Africans to embrace their historic oppressors. He urged all South Africans to look toward a rainbow future and move beyond their dark past.

In 1992 the IRB awarded the1995 Rugby World Cup (RWC) to South Africa. Mandela seized the opportunity to work toward racial reconciliation. He collaborated with Springbok and SARFU leaders to initiate the 'one team, one country' campaign in the months leading up to the RWC. Black and White South Africans alike embraced the campaign. Throughout the tournament South Africans of all races painted their faces in the colours of the new flag and cheered on the Springboks – who Mandela referred to as 'our boys'.

Rugby World Cup, 24 June 1995. Source: Grant Levarsh/Eimage Agency.Permission:

The Springboks were not the tournament favourites. However, after several hard fought matches the team made it to the finals against their old rivals the All Blacks. On 24 June 1995 the final match took place between the two teams at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg. The Springboks emerged victorious, narrowly defeating the All Blacks with a drop-goal in extra time. Nelson Mandela appeared wearing a Springboks cap and jersey before a roaring crowd of 60 000 fans and presented Springbok captain Francois Peinaar with the Ellis Cup. When asked by a reporter about the South African fan support in the stadium Peinaar replied, 'we didn't have 60 000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans'. (Peinaar, 1995)

The 1995 RWC was the ultimate rehabilitation of the Springbok. Mandela led all South Africans to a full embrace of a symbol that had once embodied the values of apartheid. Through rugby and the Springbok symbol he demonstrated to the world South Africa's capacity to change. Mandela did not change the game of rugby or the Springbok symbol themselves, he changed the meanings attached to them. Whether his incredible feat led to permanent change remains a subject of debate.

The Ambiguous Future of Rugby in South Africa

After the 1995 RWC there rose the question of whether South Africans would continue to rally around rugby when the eyes of the world were no longer upon them. The tournament was undoubtedly a magical moment in South African history, but just over a year later there was an unfortunate indication that Springbok leaders were still stuck in a racist past.

In February of 1997 a taped conversation between Springbok coach Andre Markgraaff and former player Andre Bester was aired by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. In the tape Markgraaff referred to the Senior Vice President of the SARFU Mululeki George as a 'fucking kaffir' - an incredibly derogatory racial slur. More recently accusations have risen of school age Black rugby players being called 'dogs' as they run out onto the pitch.

Tendai Mtawarira rumbles, 8 August 2008. Source: Brandon Fisher collection. Source: Grant Levarsh/Eimage Agency.Permission:

However, there are also signs that rugby in South Africa has turned a new leaf. Since 1995 the Springboks have held coaching clinics for the country’s disadvantaged youth. They have drastically increased funding for underprivileged rugby organizations. There are also an increasing number of Black South Africans representing the Springboks on the world stage. The current squad has seven Black players - Tendai Mtawarira, Bryan Habana, JP Pieterson, Zane Kirchner, Gio Aplon, Siyabonga Ntubeni and Siya Kolisi. Although the number is disproportionately small, it is a marked improvement from the single Black Springbok who played in the 1995 RWC - Chester Williams.

On Thursday 5 December 2013 the world lost a great leader. Nelson Mandela was an incredible individual and an example for all to aspire to. It is important that South Africans and the rest of the world remember his accomplishment at the 1995 RWC. Mandela showed that rugby does have the power to unite the country.

Black and White South Africans should not ignore rugby's turbulent history. Rather, they should follow in the path Mandela has shown them. He was able to change the meanings associated with the Springbok symbol - evolving it into something great. The challenge lies with South Africans to continue to honour his accomplishment.

This article was written by Simon Pinsky and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship.

• Black, D. and Nauright, J., (1998) Rugby and the South African nation: Sports, culture, politics and power in the old and new South Africas, Oxford: Manchester University Press
• Price, M. (1955) The Springboks Talk, Timmins: Bailey and Swinfen

Last updated : 18-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 19-Dec-2014