No sport makes me crazy like rugby. As in gyrating around a pub (full of England supporters) doing victory dances at the slightest odour of a point one minute and then lying on the floor with actual tears in my eyes begging Willie le Roux not to drop the ball the next. It’s a shameless display of territorial fealty and, perhaps more importantly for the expat, a hyperbolic assertion of identity. The legacy of the Green & Gold has always flirted dangerously with context but the truth is, South Africans know no other way. You must forgive us.
It started in 1995. I was 13. It was the Rugby World Cup—the opening game at Ellis Park, in Johannesburg. South Africa vs Australia. Let me paint a picture… Millions of eyeballs protrude from sockets, unblinking, unflinching—like Tex Avery’s McWolf except Red is an oval ball and the nightclub a grassy field. Francois Pienaar’s square head comes into focus—the weight of the nation bleeding from his shoulders into his face. Os du Randt is next to Pienaar; hands on hearts clutching the Springbok as they sing Nkosi Sikeleli’ iAfrika for the first time in World Cup rugby. The camera cuts to a crowd of red, green, yellow, blue, black and white faces, and then back to Andre Joubert and James Small. The anthem ends. The commentators talk about the hype on the street as the players take to the field. City centres, shebeens, braai places, bars and couches pulsate with nervous anticipation. Australia kicks off, up and high, the crowd roars and Mark Andrews makes a catch…and my mom shouts for the wrong team (what does she know about rugby…Green & Gold, the Springboks in green, Australia in gold) but very quickly corrects her mistaken allegiance before a lynching occurs.
And the rest is history.
Mom went all out; we watched every game and scoured Shell Garages for rugby curios and World Cup themed Coke cans. It was thanks to my mom that my brothers I boasted an entire tazzo-collection including THE gold Springbok—a Holy Grail extending its vast mythological power into a new era of South African sport. And THE Coke cans (italicised in emphasis of importance). Blaspheming the purity of Coca Cola’s signature red was the image of a single player emblazoned on the side of each can, representing the RWC’s participating teams. We were never allowed to drink Coke in my house (“It will rot your teeth”—mom quote) except when South Africa hosted the World Cup. The threat of the sterile chair, the masked face looming over with needle and anaesthetic, the terrifying whine of the drill, was overwhelmed by the magic of rugby players on Coke cans! We trawled petrol stations to find the teams missing from our collection. So treasured were these tin mementos that mom packed them into a suitcase twenty-five years later on a visiting trip to London. Clothes or cans? Cans, of course. We watched the games and went to Eastgate to meet the players, resulting in a rugby ball with five Springbok signatures – Hennie Le Roux, Joost Van der Westhuizen, James Small, James Dalton and Kobus Wiese – tantamount to Tutankhamen’s treasure.
We won. And the country went mad…a good kind of mad. There were parades and hooting—and joy, extreme joy. I didn’t understand much about our fraught history (that came later) but I do know that ‘unity’ became something tangible—if only for a moment.
Thereafter, I had rugby posters on my wall and bought photos of my favourite players from Bruma Lake Flea Market. I even took them on holiday with me—the photos (hashtag obsessed). The day I thought our thatch house was going to burn down when the next-door veld caught fire; it was the thought of Joost in flames that jolted me into action. Small flickers of orange reached treacherously over our wall, hungry for a playmate; I managed to grab hold of my heart, which had launched out of my chest and was beating violently mid-air, and make a dash for my rugby posters. I scrambled to detach Joost and Hennie from my wall. I wasn’t going to take my cat or my Bible or my Deputy Head Girl badge or Anne of Green Gables; nope—my rugby posters.
My passion didn’t die with ’95. It was exacerbated by exposure. A school friend and I painted our faces in provincial colours – me: red and white for Transvaal, her: black and white for Natal – and sat in the stands screaming for our opposing teams, never caring that we were not on the same side. I watched SA versus Wales at Ellis Park and was flabbergasted at Kobus Wiese’s immensity, even from a distance—the biggest dude I had ever seen. Other than Ernie Else, who I saw strolling through the airport on my way to Cape Town in Standard 9. I couldn’t miss a game. And do you know, my mom taught James Dalton’s once-upon-a-time girlfriend. As the story goes…
…we were at Woolworths in Eastgate one day and a very pretty blonde lady stopped to chat to my mom. I looked up and there was James. James Dalton. Fellow Jeppe kid. Wielder of THE emblem. Practically hyperventilating (me, not James) while my mom and her ex-pupil caught up on life in and after school, I was completely stunned (like, mouth open and no words coming out, total weirdo, kind of stunned) that a real-life Springbok stood a mere foot away from me. The convo ended, James and his bombshell left and my mom looked at me, quizzically. Still hyperventilating, I managed to splutter “Mom! That was James Dalton!” She looked at me blankly and replied: “Who? That bald-headed thug?”—Mommm! Honestly.
Now, I am many miles and years away from the girl who collected tazzos, swooned at a bald-headed thug and smuggled James Small in a suitcase travelling from Joburg to Durban. And yet there’s something about the game but not just the game; there’s something about the Springbok. Something so South African that no matter what part of the world you’re in; it reminds you of home. Not the load shedding or the xenophobia or the violence or the tragedy but the people; the memories, the smiles and the friendships, the dry grass in winter and the warmth of the sun at Christmas. That distinctly South African down-to-earthness that is proudly home-grown. That.
So now, I pass the Springbok on to my five children. They might be born and bred in England (for which I am grateful) but they willed the Springboks to win the 2019 World Cup along with 56 million others. Why? Because they are South African. Not by birth. But in spirit. And isn’t that what the Springbok is all about? – Heart. A great big one.
Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin
Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.