The 2023 Rugby World Cup was the first time in my life that I’ve experienced sports fandom as pain. I’d read about it before in Nick Hornby’s Fever pitch and I’d even covered the concept in classes I’ve taught, but I’d never before personally experienced that level of consuming investment in the success of a team.
What is it about these 2023 Springboks that has proven so engrossing for so many – including previously casual rugby fans like me? Is it just because we knew they were major contenders in the Rugby World Cup, and success loves company? I think the answer has got to be deeper than that.
Certainly the Springboks were marketed brilliantly in this World Cup. I remember cries of derision when they rolled out Mgarimbe’s “Sister Bokina” song back during the Rugby Championship. Even so, the parasocial pleasures of watching edited clips of the team in training and in action (some of which, let’s admit it, are plainly thirst traps) can’t be overstated. The social media managers of this World Cup are legends in their own time, but then the quality of their work is informed by the quality of the material they have to work with. It’s obvious that these players are a highly cohesive crew.
A lot of the international analysis of this Springbok team’s extraordinary journey to a second consecutive World Cup title has focused on their toughness – on the idea that South Africa is a tough place. The word “brutality” always gets thrown around a fair bit when the Springboks are playing. When the going got hardest, according to the commentators, those pugilistic Boks dug just that little bit deeper than any of their opponents. One point was enough to bury France, England and New Zealand.
Fair enough, but I don’t think the Springboks – especially in the eyes of the rest of the world – get nearly enough credit for their softness. The Springboks wouldn’t be as easy to love if it weren’t obvious – from every clip and social media story available – how much love they have for one another. It’s something that goes beyond the fact that rugby is a physical game, and that playing it requires you to become comfortable with physical contact, both violent and nonviolent. Springbok magic entails ruthlessness on the pitch for sure, but also tenderness when the final whistle blows. Siya Kolisi’s immediate post-match embrace of a distraught Cheslin Kolbe is just one example.
Like South African hardegatheid, South African softness also maybe has a particular cultural significance. In a context where even the simplest things are difficult – things like commuting, feeding your family, and accessing water and electricity – praise and encouragement mean more when received across the familiar axes of division.
Like South African hardegatheid, South African softness also maybe has a particular cultural significance. In a context where even the simplest things are difficult – things like commuting, feeding your family, and accessing water and electricity – praise and encouragement mean more when received across the familiar axes of division. When Eben Etzebeth ululates in praise of Siya Kolisi’s amagwijo, or when Bongi Mbonambi leans into his new role as a global ambassador for Afrikaans – throwing the word kant around with gusto during a training session – ubuntu reveals itself to be worth the heart-stopping stress of a one-point victory on the pitch.
That last statement may seem corny, but it’s impossible to deny that these Springboks, under the leadership of Siya Kolisi, are intensely and beautifully corny. They are the rainbow nation. They are wholesomeness personified. Despite their worldwide reputation for defensive brutality, they serve as groomsmen at each other’s weddings, they cry because they worry about letting down their country, and they strip down to Speedos and give each other drunken haircuts at 4:30 in the morning.
Obviously the Springboks have some massive forwards who will smear you across the pitch without a second thought if you cross them. But what makes the Springboks of 2023 unique is that they show ubuntu in a different way to how Mandela or Tutu did. They didn’t receive it from the mountaintop, through some unfathomable struggle or superhuman facility to forgive. Instead, it seems to have emerged naturally in the course of their time together. They make it look commonplace.
South Africans know how rare it can be.
The Springboks – or at least the image of the Springboks in which we’ve indulged over the past eight weeks – thrill us because they show us a version of South Africa in which we can save all our defensiveness for the opposing team. Where the company of South Africans is uncomplicated. Somewhere safe, where we can always be ourselves.
During the Rugby World Cup, when I opened up my TikTok “For you” page, I’d be inundated with examples of the Springboks’ marketing success: slow-motion close-ups of moments from the match, posted to the official Rugby World Cup account; viral videos of fans celebrating across South Africa – some at home, some at bars, some inside shopping malls – an absolutely unprecedented amount of dancing and singing. And then there were the comments:
“Imagine not being South African”
“Captain my Captain”
“if ur not a south african u will not understand the feeling”
“Faf our very own last born”
“Elizabedi the house in Soweto is waiting for you”
Thirty-five years ago, someone who played for the Springboks and looked like Eben Etzebeth would have been seen by the rest of the world – and by many South Africans – as a symbol of racial machismo at its most toxic. Luckily for us, the real Eben is at the back of the bus, taking selfies with Siya.