JOHANNESBURG - Thando Makasi has always been a rugby fan, she says — a rare black supporter in a sport long associated with her country’s white minority.
But times are changing. On Saturday, South African rugby fans of all racial backgrounds cheered as a black player from her small, impoverished hometown, helmed the national rugby team, the Springboks, to a decisive 32-12 victory over England in a historic Rugby World Cup final.
And so, for Makasi, this was about more than just a game.
“This tournament has just brought so much hope,” she said in Johannesburg as she watched the match at a downtown restaurant with her husband and 17-year-old son. “... We really are rallying behind the Boks and we are one together, strong together. We are stronger together. That’s a win. That’s a win for South Africa.”
The win, many fans said, is reminiscent of the nation’s 1995 triumph at the same tournament. South Africa ended the racist apartheid system in 1994. The next year, the country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, walked onto the pitch, wearing a green-and-gold Springbok jersey, to congratulate team captain Francois Pienaar. Their warm embrace showed this divided nation a path to racial reconciliation.
Siya Kolisi, the squad’s first black captain, was clearly aware of the implications beyond the pitch.
“I’ve never seen South Africa like this,” he said after the final match, in Yokohama, Japan. “I mean, obviously in 1995, what the World Cup did for us, and now, with all the challenges we are having, the coach just came and told us the last game, we’re not playing for ourselves anymore, We’re playing for people back home.”
That’s a message that was heard loud and clear by fans in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city and a melting pot of different races and nationalities. Many young black South Africans, affected by high unemployment and persistent inequality, acknowledge that Mandela’s dream of racial reconciliation isn’t quite complete.
But, says 28-year-old fan Madi Ramahuma, events like this help.
“In South Africa, it’s not about color,” she said. “Since 1994, we are just trying, eventually we’re getting there, just to be South Africans, But one thing I love about sports is it always bring us all together. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you have, what you don’t have, it’s sports.”
Even non-supporters agree. In this crowd, though, Nigel Ngwenya stood out — and not just because he plays rugby for the University of the Witwatersrand and weighs 120 kilograms.
Ngwenya, who was born in Zimbabwe and educated in South Africa, is an England fan, and wore their red jersey. But, he said, he gives the Springboks their due.
“They have that fighting spirit,” he said. “They’ve got that never-give-up, never die spirit. Whatever you bring to the table, they try to catch up and actually do better, which they’ve done in the past games.
"Siya Kolisi, ah, man — guy’s coming from far… It’s a shame I’m not supporting him. I’d have preferred him to play for England.” He laughs.
It was a strong and exciting match, with both tries scored by non-white players against a uninspired English team. For fan Devon Seoble and his friends, who are members of South Africa’s mixed-race community, that was icing on the cake.
“It obviously makes us feel awesome,” he said “I mean, coming from 1994, it shows how much the country’s grown, having a black captain, having an African black captain leading our team. It’s something brilliant, it shows the change, it shows democracy.”
By the final whistle, even Ngwenya — the England supporter — was a changed fan, swapping his red jersey for Springbok green. He laughed as he congratulated other fans, and Kolisi spoke to his excited nation, and to rugby fans around the world.
“We can achieve anything if we work together as one,” he said.