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View from South Africa: ‘This was humiliation, a huge wound to pride’ – The Guardian

Anger. Humiliation. Disbelief. More anger. These are the primary reactions in South Africa to being on the wrong end of the greatest giantkilling act in rugby World Cup history, a clear case of the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Saturday’s stunning defeat by 1,000-1 outsiders Japan came after allegations of racial discrimination in team selection, and did little to lift general gloom in a nation beset by a faltering economy and high unemployment.

“There is a mood of dejection in the country today – you can feel it,” said Mondli Makhanya, a leading newspaper columnist. “A loss in a World Cup game to anybody obviously hurts. A loss to bitter rivals like the All Blacks or Wallabies hits very hard. But this was humiliation, a huge wound to national pride.”

For some South Africans, rugby union is akin to a religion. The 1995 World Cup became part of national mythology when Nelson Mandela, the first black president, donned the Springbok jersey, once a symbol of white oppression. South Africa won that year and again in 2007. While the football team continues to struggle, rugby is something at which the country excels on the global stage.

Makhanya wrote in a recent column how he would be cheering for South Africa’s opponents because he felt Mandela’s legacy had been betrayed by a lack of racial transformation in rugby. The coach, Heyneke Meyer, chose eight black or mixed-race players for his 31-man World Cup squad, still no reflection of the national demographic 21 years after the end of apartheid.

On Sunday Makhanya said he had “jumped for joy” when Japan snatched a 34-32 victory, adding: “You don’t want to be too, ‘I told you so’, but I was very excited about the outcome. It’s interesting how it’s played out here. A lot of black people were supporting the Springboks but after the loss there was a turning against them: ‘They deserved to lose for fielding a mainly white team, a less transformed team than the Japanese team.’”

He added: “The race debate immediately reignited after that loss. It’s going to dog the Springboks for the duration of the tournament and the players are not going to be able to solely focus on it. But it’s not just that the team is mainly white; it’s also the age and the ability and the fitness of them.”

Much of the national rage was focused on Meyer, reminiscent of the public pillorying that Graham Taylor and other England football coaches have endured when much-hyped World Cup campaigns turn sour. He swiftly issued an apology to the nation, describing it as by far the worst moment of his coaching career.

South Africa’s Sunday Times suggested that Meyer will pay with his job, devoting its entire front page to the debacle in Brighton under the headline, “Bok heads to roll”. The City Press newspaper likened the surprise of the result to the Japanese attack on an American naval base in 1941: “Boks downed in Pearl Harbour.”

The topic dominated radio phone-ins and social media. Victor Dlamini, a photographer, wrote on Twitter: “The keep the Springboks white so they can win & not be damaged by transformation brigade is in hiding today.”

Fana Mokoena, an actor and political party spokesperson, compared the rugby team with South Africa’s beleaguered footballers, who failed to qualify for the last World Cup. “The Springboks are the new Bafana Bafana,” he tweeted. “How time flies.”

Former Springboks joined the condemnation. Robbie Kempson, a former prop who is now manager of the Kings Rugby Academy in Port Elizabeth, accused the side packed with 888 Test caps of “tactical naivety” and “a touch of arrogance”.

He said: “The reaction is more anger than anything else. No disrespect to Japan but it’s just unacceptable from a South African point of view. We don’t settle for mediocrity. We’re getting tired of apologies and if the coach is going to be held accountable, maybe it’s time for a change of coach. Apologies are no longer enough.”

One newspaper columnist, who did not wish to be named, added: “It is the lowest point ever in the history of South African rugby. It is an absolute national disgrace. It is the responsibility of the coach and the only way to redeem himself now is to win the World Cup.”

But some South Africans were philosophical. Chris Thurman, a university academic and author of Sport versus Art, said: “Removed from the Springbok soap opera, this was simply a fantastic rugby moment. History-making stuff. An entertaining game, a cliff-hanger, resulting in an unprecedented upset. Great for the Japan players, sure, but it was even better to see the reactions of the supporters.

“And, finally, the Bok supporters – in London, in SA, on Facebook – have, it seems, managed to balance gloomy solipsism with a real sense of what this might mean for the Japanese.”

View from South Africa: ‘This was humiliation, a huge wound to pride’ – The Guardian

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