Mhambi has been redeployed.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mhambi's post rugby blues

After the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup Mhambi felt strangely empty. It was not how I expected to feel. How weird, because Mhambi only just dared to hope that the Bokke will pull off a victory.

Lets be clear, considering the trails and trebulations of this team, the difficulty on winning the World Cup, what a victory would portend politically and the potential ramifications it could have, this was enormous.

Originally uploaded by fabdany.

The decline of Springbok rugby
Let's just recap. Here we have a team, once arguably the best in the world, who had four years ago slipped to such an extent that countries like Scotland (no offence Scotland) thought the Boks would be for there for the taking.

The UK Guardian prior to the previous World Cup in 2003 described the Springboks and being dinosaurs on their way to extinction.

Partly this lack of form was because of the morose depression amongst the mostly Afrikaner rugby playing public. The future was uncertain, crime was rife, there was no room for an expression of political decent or other identities in the country. Whites were immigrating in droves.

But there were more immediate reasons for the loss of form. The team was forced to choose a quota of black players to make it more representative of South Africa. Often the team coach had only a handful of choices of players who cut mustard at a provincial level. And on an international level these few players were often just not good enough.

Jake White chose his quota players in positions where he believed he could get away with it. At prop where knowledge of the dark art of the scrum could be a useful screen of defeciencies. And at wing, where cover defences have more time to react. But this practise did not always mask the deficiencies and oposition teams cottoned on to the weak links. Weak scrumming cost the Boks losses against teams like Wales, a team South Africa had never lost to. It cost us record losses against The All Blacks.

The incredible difficulty of managing a team like this is illustrated the fact that when the team suffered an injury of a black player at wing, White had to also replace another position where he had a black player available (like at prop), if the replacement wing was not black himself. An all white rugby team was simply politically unacceptable.

The pretence of representation
Why this aggressive push by the ANC in an attempt to make the Boks black? This push was not couched in the language of inclusive representation. The struggle for South Africa is as I said before, not just about race. But it is also about two competing sets of nationalism: Afrikaner and African nationalism.

It has been said that the team should be majority black and not merely be more representative. It has even been suggested that the likes of Habana and Pietersen, coloured players, are not black and therefore African enough. And not too long ago ANC members called for this team's white member's passports to be confiscated to prevent them from going to France. And weeks before the World Cup were to start the ANC called for the Springbok name and logo to be replaced.

To Afrikaners who increasingly claim their culture, contributions and history are being wiped from South Africa, this announcement was of more devastating import than the recent name changes of Afrikaner named towns.

When Mhambi wears his cynical hat, this effort from the ANC looks more like a ploy to extend centralist control into another part of South African life, while at the same time killing off one of the only remaining platforms of Afrikaner culture, identity and expression.

But some qouta selections came good. Breyton Paulse for instance developed into a quality and classy international wing. And then came the likes of Bryan Habana. Not only would he be of international standard, he is arguably the best in his position in the world. Come the World Cup White needed at least one other black player to satisfy the politicians. Try as he might Ashwin Willemse was not showing his early promise. J P Pietersen, the man with weak defence and butter fingers made a match winning tackle and ran dangerously, scoring regularly. He became another winger that came good during this World Cup.

Mecurial Percy Montgomery went on to kick all the goals that mattered, Butch James toned down his testosterone, and Frans Steyn did nothing stupid.

And incredibly the Boks went on to win the World Cup.

Wow. And hey, Mhambi has to admit that considering our history it was great that the team was not all white.

rugby world cup2007.jpg
Originally uploaded by jimfitzpix.

So why the empty feeling Mhambi?

Standing on the shoulders of giants
The sight of Thabu Mbeki, the politician that did so much to ditch the talk of reconciliation and reracialised South African political discourse, being carried victorious shoulder high at the Stade de France was nauseating. How Thabu would love a bit of Madiba magic to rub off on his paranoid shoulders in an election year. As the rugby writer Siyabonga Mchunu observed, “it was not the Springboks that needed Mbeki’s support ... It was Mbeki who needed the support of the World Cup champions.” What a farce!

When the Springboks won the cup in 1995, Mhambi was dancing in the streets along with black and white South Africans, brimming with positive hope for the future of our young democracy.

How different it would feel 12 years later. Hlophe, Selebi, Manto and manifold other ghosts haunt our country. Mhambi thought to himself, is this the last time South Africa celebrates, ever? What does this victory mean? Is it but a parting shot? A blip in our terminal decline? After all just the night before the victory reggae star Lucky Dube had been shot.

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James said...

I was interested in your "farce" comment and a few days back probably would have agreed that that was how most people felt. But I was travelling this last weekend, so wound up watching the RWC final in a dodgy pub in rural Natal.....and something really surprised me. The vast majority of the people in the pub were middle aged whites (there were maybe two black faces in the whole place - staff excluded). And every time Mbeki appeared on TV (singing the national anthem, shaking players hands, etc), a large part of the crowd cheered - for Mbeki. That really was not the response I expected and it actually really threw me.

I'm a white SA and I've never found Mbeki's discourse on race alienating at all - but I guess I also assumed that I must be the only one, because there have been so many vocal objectors. But this last weekend actually made me wonder what the majority of whites really think about him. I have a hunch that seeing him lifted on the players shoulders might actually have been a great moment for a lot of people.....

Wessel said...

Hi James, Mbeki signalled his world view with his two nations speech early on in his presidency. Throughout Mbeki's presidency the idealogy has been that there is only one way to be African and that is black. Others have to adopt blackness to be true South Africans.

Since then he and his ministers played the race card every time they came in for citicism, Mbeki being the most paranoid example. He said that fears of crime are in fact a smokescreen of white fear of blacks.

His administration has rewarded blind loyalty, encouraged racial solidarity at the cost of the rule of law, and self enrichment.

It has amazed me for some time how positively white South Africa perceive Mbeki. Mostly this support has coalesed around his hands off approach to the economy. After all, by and large whites have gotten rich through Mbeki's right wing economic policies.

How on earth could Jacob Zuma be a worse president? Theoretically I suppose that's possible. But Mbeki will be a hard act to follow. He is after all responible for the death of at least 300,000 South Africans.

James said...

Hi Wessel,

Well, agree with you that the danger a JZ presidency poses has been overdone…… :-) However:

On the Two Nations speech subject, I went back and read the speech and nowhere do I see him putting forward the argument that to be truly African, you need to be black. For the most part he seems to be tackling a very thorny subject in a, I thought, reasonably magnanimous way:

He begins by reaffirming the Constitutional value that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity" and goes on to say “there are, indeed, significant numbers of people in our society, including people among the white and Afrikaner community who, by word and deed, have demonstrated a real commitment to the translation of the vision of national unity and reconciliation into reality.”

I don’t find anything offensive or divisive in his argument that there are two very separate South African societies: one relatively prosperous and one trapped in under-development and poverty. And certainly in 1998, race would have played a large determining factor in which one of the societies one belonged to (although I believe it is less of a factor in 2007). Nor do I find anything controversial in his assertion that the richer members of society should underwrite the expense of developing the poorer sections of society – isn’t that a basic social democratic principle?

Then, regarding your comment “he said that fears of crime are in fact a smokescreen of white fear of blacks”, I assume that you’re referring to the ANC Today letter on 16 March. But even there the majority of the controversial statements in the letter about the relationship between the perception of crime and white racism were direct quotes from Nelson Mandela.

Even where Mbeki does talk about whites living in fear of blacks, he is at pains to point out that he is not generalising (“by no means everybody who is white”).

And again, he ends the letter making an approving reference to “the dreams of our youth for a new South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it, united in their diversity”.

The huge irony to me is that Mbeki anticipated the fact that he would be accused of lashing out at whites, saying “the fact of unacceptably high levels of crime in our country is not in dispute. Nevertheless, in the light of what follows, none among us should be surprised when, as is customary, those who are determined to avoid confronting the difficult issues we raise in this Letter [i.e. the fact that freedom from racism is a fundamental right], seek to divert attention away from discussing the relationship between racism and the perception of crime, by falsely and dishonestly claiming that I am trying to deny or minimise the seriousness of the incidence of crime in our country.”

So, again, having gone and reread that particular letter now, I can’t say I disagree with any of it myself – after all, as a white South African, I come across the attitudes he is discussing every day!

On your other points: sure, there have been plenty of mistakes made under Mbeki’s watch, but I don’t think that’s really what we’re debating here. The only point I am trying to make is that I've never found Mbeki's discourse on race alienating...

Wessel said...

James, good points. But your wrong IMHO.

"I have often wondered what gives President Thabo Mbeki special access to the experience of racism — access those of us who lived under the apartheid regime all those dark years somehow seem never to have had. Race has such a privileged space in the president’s thinking that no ordinary personal experience has any autonomy. The irony of this apparent radicalism is that black experience is always explained in terms of white experience. In this over-racialised framework, HIV/AIDS does not have any autonomy — it is white people who see black people as “germ carriers”.

In the same way, corruption does not have any autonomy — it is a figment of white people’s imagination. Crime does not have any autonomy — it is white people fixated on black people as the “swart gevaar”."

Those are the words of Xolela Mangcu. He agrees with you on one point however and so do I. There are many racists (many of whome white) in South Africa:

"To be sure, this country is still full of racists. I meet them every day. I am, however, less sure if it is the role of a country’s president to issue generalised harangues about white people on that supposition. A president who fights those battles for us risks incapacitating us and, even more ominously, leaves us entirely dependent on his judgment. The citizens must take the fight against racism on its own merits to our civic, intellectual and cultural spaces — backed always by the force of law. We must talk about it, we must write about it, and we must use our constitution to fight it. Our firmness and resolve in fighting racism must be matched only by a willingness to love and accept those we seek to change.

And this is where the role of head of state needs to be different from what we have seen from Mbeki. Symbolically, the president stands as the representative of everyone, including the sections of the population he finds disagreeable. He must find it within his heart to love them and even accept their integrity. Substantively, he must use the bully pulpit of his presidency to point to the need to fight racism. However, that is quite different from a dependence on race as a political crutch for every policy failure."

The two nations speech were in content not a radical departure from what had gone before (as you metion he starts with the Freedom Charter - South Africa belongs to all who live in it...), but in tone it was, specifically when we look at what *happened* then (and did not happen) since then.

I remember when I first heard the speech, what got my back up was the fact that he painted our primary problem as one of a simplistic white and black, when in actual fact it was inequality we needed to target. One, because its gets us out of the continuoes dibilitating and polarising race discource, two because targetting poverty will solve most of our problems and three, because black and white simply does not explain the complexity of the South African situation.

At this same time his government was alienating Afrikaners and pushing competent civil servants (mostly Afrikaans) out of government government because they were white. This was a huge mistake, because it said to people that were working for the state at below market rates and were commited to the country, that they are not wanted. And two because without a resonably competent civil service all the best layed policy plans of the ANC will not be implemented.

During Mbeki's government race was used as an excuse everytime a mistake was made. And slowly the so called national democratic revolution under Mbeki came to mean, not a democratic pluralistic state, based on the rule of law, and protection of minorities but a hegemonic and racially exclusive ideology of Africanism, to whom everybody should be loyal but to whom only some could lay claim.

Mbeki's government dont do the Freedom charter no more. That at least is Van Zyl Slabbert's opinion and I kind of agree with him.

I mean what's with his goverment's tax forms, where we are classified white, coloured, asian or African?

Mbeki's government has punished whistle blowers, the SABC turned into a state mouth piece, and corruption proliferated. Confusion and fear reigns.

And the deaths of thousands of South Africans due to Aids can be layed at his door - and what has driven this folly is exactly his paranoid clinging to his distorted views on race.