When I was a little boy in 1971 my dad took me to Sydney Cricket Ground to watch the Springboks play against the Wallabies. My father told me that “we will probably never see the Springboks again.”
The images of that day were etched in my young mind. Smoke bombs are thrown on the ground. Police officers armed with batons attack the invaders on the ground. The deafening sound of hundreds of whistles blown by the banner waving the anti-apartheid crowd.
At the heart of the protests were several members of the 1969 Wallaby touring group in South Africa. These men had been so appalled by the injustices inflicted on the black community under apartheid that on their return to Australia they turned from gamers to protesters.
This 1971 match was the last between Australia and the Springboks in 21 years. Despite the 1980s, when Ireland, Lions and New Zealand shamefully played against the apartheid regime, generations of Australians refused to play Springboks.
When I wasn’t a big player, in the 1980s I got an offer to travel to East London and play club rugby. I cannot describe to you how much I wanted to go and discover South Africa. apartheid was my reason for not going and although I disagree with those who went to play in South Africa, I fully understand why they did. Africa’s appeal is deeply powerful.
Many years later, I found myself standing in the warm Sydney winter sun and listening to Nelson Mandela speak on the steps of the Opera House. What we thought was impossible in South Africa had become a reality.
In 1993, Mandela was a presidential candidate and I finally set foot on African soil. I was an assistant coach with The Emerging Wallabies. We toured as amateurs in Zimbabwe, Namibia and all over South Africa. The tour schedule was a relic of the 1950s with matches in different cities every Wednesday and Saturday. The last major tour of its kind and the South African rugby experience of a lifetime.
It was during this tour that I entered a canton for the first time. Millions of poor people living under plastic sheeting and corrugated iron, tied together with pieces of wire. There was no running water and open sewers flowed through the streets. The size and scale of the cantons remain incomprehensible. Even though we were asked to host a training session for the kids playing rugby in the township, we still needed arm guards. When entering and exiting our cars did not stop at any intersection for fear of being attacked. The violence around us was tangible.
We blamed the apartheid system and believed that when Mandela became president things would change.
With the explosion of professionalism and the creation of Super Rugby, I have returned with pleasure several times to South Africa. On each trip, several of us returned to coach in different municipalities.
Everyone was the same. Millions of people live in the same deplorable conditions. After my stint at Super Rugby I continued to visit South Africa and unfortunately saw that things were not improving. In fact, the lives of the poor in South Africa seemed to be getting worse. Gun violence was on the streets. The country’s infrastructure was starting to crumble. The failing electrical system led to constant blackouts.
Since Mandela took office, the African National Congress Party has ruled South Africa for nearly three decades. This week, former ANC chairman Jacob Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to appear for a corruption investigation. To his great honor, the current president of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, is trying to change this culture. Despite his personal efforts, factions within his own ANC party, which remain loyal to Zuma, actively resist the reforms. It is still unclear who will win this internal battle for the soul of the ANC.
A few months ago, Ramaphosa told the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Public Sector Fraud that “the state capture took place under our (ANC ) oversight as a governing body. It involved members and leaders of our organization and it found fertile ground in the divisions, weaknesses and trends that developed in our organization (the ANC).
Here we must remember that the chaotic situation Lions find themselves in is not entirely of their own accord. This Lions tour is taken in the shadow of ANC politics. The ANC controls all top sports teams in South Africa, including the Springboks. Their interference goes as far as team selections. I have this confirmed by several former Springbok coaches and players.
Last year, the Lions tour was offered a “safe home” in Australia. With test matches against South Africa and warm-up matches in front of full stadiums in a very low risk Covid environment.
Rugby Australia’s generous offer was arguably the best financial option. When that was rejected, we all witnessed the proposal to host matches in the UK and Ireland with stadiums partially filled.
Then, confusing all predictions, the tour was confirmed to travel to South Africa amid the cyclone of the pandemic. The ANC government’s fingerprints were all over this decision. Any suggestion to move or cancel the Lions tour would be admitting to the world that the ANC government is not running its own country at a reasonable level of competence.
An example of their fundamental mismanagement was in March of this year when the South African government sold a million AstraZeneca vaccines, mistakenly believing the vaccine was not effective against certain variants of Covid. As the pandemic rages around the Johannesburg Lions, only 2% of South Africans are vaccinated.
This is why the Lions are sitting in a high veld biosecurity bubble waiting to play against an opposition that has had positive Covid tests on their team. I’m not sure the Lions are resting easily after hearing that the Castle Lager Lions Series Medical Advisory Group has cleared the Springboks to play. With a title seemingly taken from a Soviet ten-year plan, I can only speculate on the pressure on this committee to allow the Boks to play.
More than 30 years after Mandela’s liberation from Robben Island, the townships still exist. More than 20,000 South Africans are murdered in gun violence each year and President Ramaphosa has confirmed that endemic corruption is on such a vast scale that he describes it as a “state capture”.
My generation chose not to play rugby in South Africa because we felt we were fighting a system that was gravely unfair to the people of South Africa. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that we have not fulfilled our mission. We just changed the oppressors.