It's bigger than us, this Bok

2008-10-17 00:00

It is not about where Luke Watson chooses to regurgitate his food, or whether he will play for his country again.

It is not about Butana Khompela, chairman of the Parliamentary portfolio committee on Sport and Recreation, an infernal combustion engine of a man who appears strangely intent on rolling back the years and demonstrating that sport in South Africa, so often a vehicle for unity and reconciliation over the past 18 years, can yet revert to being a cause of bitterness and division, prompting a retreat to the racial trenches.

It is not about an innocent, beautiful leaping gazelle, inaccurately and unjustifiably labelled as a symbol of a loathed and emphatically banished system of government.

It is not about the insulting and frankly ridiculous insinuation that the current world champion rugby team are, in reality, just another “bunch of Dutchmen” pulling their wagons into a last laager of defiant Afrikaner resistance, clinging to the past and playing for their emblem rather than the new democracy.

It is not about a spurious and nonsensical notion that each and every national team representing South Africa must adopt one identical King Protea emblem; in England, for example, the national football and cricket teams play with three lions on their chest but the national rugby team wears a red rose — and nobody cares; in a mature country, at ease with itself, nobody bothers about homogenised emblems.

It is not about obliterating a “symbol of the past” because, like so many individuals and institutions during a remarkable period of renewal and rebirth in the remarkable history of this remarkable country, the Springbok has been redefined as an emblem of unity and success, of celebration and national pride — not only at Ellis Park on June 24, 1995 when a president and a captain wearing number six jerseys brought their country together, and not only at the Stade de France, in Paris, on October 20, 2007 when another ANC leader celebrated on the shoulders of players in green and gold and the entire nation united in joy all over again, but also through every home Test and international tour in between.

It is about respecting and preserving the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who courageously proved that what was once widely perceived as the granite rock of apartheid could be magically transformed into the diamond-headed cutting edge of the new democratic and free South Africa.

It is about something else altogether.

It is about sustaining the spirit of tolerance and reconciliation that pulled this country together when the rest of the world feared, and expected, bloodshed and civil war.

It is about preserving the promise of the new South Africa as a place where diversity is always celebrated as a national strength and never attacked, where the sincerely-held wishes of a minority are respected and not brutally brushed aside.

It is about recognising the reality that the Springbok emblem means a great deal to many millions of decent, liberal and profoundly committed South Africans — not because they hold it dear as a souvenir of a divided past, but because they sincerely feel it is part of what they are and what they aspire to be.

It is about understanding the reality that forcibly removing the Springbok from the national rugby team will bring pleasure to nobody beyond a handful of preening politicians and their acolytes — nobody is going to be dancing in the townships, nobody will celebrate in the real world dominated by real issues where ordinary people yearn for jobs, opportunity and the alleviation of poverty — yet such a move will cause genuine hurt and pain to many.

It is about retaining the enthusiasm and confidence of millions of South Africans, many of them Afrikaners, many of them not Afrikaners, who continue to make an immense contribution to the development of this country but who may start to lose faith and look elsewhere if the Bok is needlessly culled.

It is about pulling South Africans together, not pushing them apart.

Make no mistake, the imminent government decision whether or not to retain the Springbok as the emblem of the national rugby team is neither inconsequential nor trivial.

Maybe, indeed, it is about the future of this country.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby —

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