In 1993, 3,000 Afrikaners stormed the conference centre where the ANC and the Nationalist government of FW de Klerk were negotiating the end of 45 years of apartheid. It was not quite the last throw of the dice.
A few months later, various semi-fascist groups tried to derail the elections that followed, but by and large there was resigned acceptance. I was there and I had a rather aberrant thought: it wasn’t the prospect of a new and rainbow nation that appealed to Afrikaners, but the return of international rugby.
In the years since, Afrikaners have become a beleaguered minority; hardly any government, army, police, civil service or railway jobs are available to them and their farms are under threat. They shouldn’t have been surprised: when the first Nationalist Afrikaner government came to power, it introduced job reservation and appointed its own to every available government job in the country. Black people’s movements, job opportunities, education and property rights were all severely restricted.
In the 12 years since South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in front of Nelson Mandela, the wheel has turned and the Afrikaner male’s sense of primacy or even relevance in his God-given land has been irretrievably lost. These days, Afrikaans pop songs are full of a kind of irony, often comic and self-mocking; Afrikaner youth is increasingly mobile, appearing as waiters in English restaurants, and doctors in English hospitals, and in all the other guises of the global economy.
When Jake White, the South African coach, describes victory in Saturday’s World Cup final as “South Africa’s destiny”, I wonder if he really understands what he is saying. It is widely reported that he has faced political obstacles and that, after this tournament, the Springboks will be required to present a multi-coloured face to the world.
Only two of the 15 likely to play England are black, exactly the same number as in the English team. It is intolerable to the government of South Africa that rugby should be so white. And at the same time it is difficult for whites to accept that the game they love so passionately should be subject to quotas. White has reported that Thabo Mbeki has encouraged him to win and forget about politics. But I get the feeling that he knows that this match is the last stand of the old era.
Rugby had always been the Afrikaners’ national game: no matter that their government was leading them down a path of isolation and stagnation, rugby provided support for the Afrikaners’ belief that there was something elemental and biblical about their rugby heroes; rugby was the secular religion.
In the background somewhere there were non-whites and liberal pinkos who favoured soccer. The few non-whites who appeared at international rugby matches with the sole purpose of cheering the opposition were pelted, in their small enclosures, with bottles, chairs and stones.
These brave people understood that rugby was much more than a game to the Afrikaners; it was in a sense their defining character.
Although South African rugby has had many great English-speaking players in its ranks, there was a persistent belief that it should be properly and rightly controlled by Afrikaners; it was their epiphany. Great players such as Tommy Bedford and Nick Mallett suffered as a result, and as late as 2000 the Watson brothers, Cheeky and Valence, were not awarded Springbok colours because of their stand against apartheid.
In this narrow world of South African rugby, England was traditionally despised. The namby-pamby way the English played rugby seemed to suggest a fundamental national weakness. Once, they had been the conquerors of the Afrikaner; the English had enslaved their women and children; the English had taken their country for the sake of gold and diamonds. And the English had introduced wholly inappropriate notions of equality between the races.
The notorious tackle in 1962 on the England and Lions centre Richard Sharp by Mannetjies Roux was long celebrated in South Africa as a re-run of the Boer War with a more favourable outcome. So the shock that South Africa experienced in losing repeatedly to England during the Woodward era has made their recent dominance, and particularly the 36-0 victory in the pool stage of this World Cup, all the sweeter.
Saturday’s match has enormous importance for England, but only in the sense that it would be a miracle if a team that only a few weeks ago was so derided should come back from the dead to retain the World Cup. A victory won’t have a major effect on national life after a few weeks.
But for South African rugby there is a complex mix of race, identity and history barely contained within the green jerseys. Jake White’s pre-match message will be that they are playing for their country. But which country: the old or the new?