Rugby match in Soweto uplifts South Africa

SOWETO, South Africa – Fifteen years after Nelson Mandela used rugby to convince South Africa's white minority to give a chance to the country's fledgling democracy, the sport has once again allowed the nation to reach another milestone in its quest for a nonracial society.

Tens of thousands of white Afrikaners descended on Soweto over the weekend to follow the Blue Bulls, the Pretoria rugby team with a fanatical following that decided to relocate a crucial home game to the heart of South Africa’s most populous black township.

FIFA, the international soccer governing body, forced the move as the Bulls’ stadium — Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria — is one of 10 stadiums to be used for the upcoming soccer World Cup, and FIFA wants to preserve its pitch in the weeks leading to the month-long tournament. But the fact that the Bulls’ leadership picked Soweto’s iconic Orlando Stadium as a replacement carries a symbolism that wasn’t lost on anyone.

“It is one of those special South African moments that proves we are better off for having one another, and that despite the challenges we face, our society is on the right track,” Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu told local reporters ahead of the game.

Soweto, a sprawling township located southwest of Johannesburg, played a major role in the struggle against apartheid, the racist, segregationist policies engineered by the Afrikaner minority. The Freedom Charter, a document setting a nonracial South Africa as the ultimate goal of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, was signed here in 1955. It was also here that Mandela resided for 15 years before going underground, and where a brutally repressed student uprising in 1976 provided one of the strongest challenges to the oppressive regime.

Before 1994, the only whites to venture into Soweto were police officers patrolling the streets in armored vehicles. Even now, virtually none of Soweto’s more than 1 million residents is white, and the rare white faces there are those of foreign tourists visiting the township’s historic sites.

Although progress has been made to reduce racial separation in South Africa, blacks and whites largely keep to themselves and distrust of the other is common. So it took many Bulls fans by surprise to see the warm welcome reserved for them by the Soweto residents who lined the streets leading to the stadium.

Everywhere one looked, visitors and locals snapped pictures of each other, and residents shouted their support in Afrikaans, the Bulls’ supporters’ preferred language.

“I thought everybody was going to be angry, but it was just vuvuzelas and horns,” said Tiaan Boucher, an ecstatic 22-year-old Pretoria resident and longtime Bulls fan.

Boucher, who came to Soweto with his 50-year-old father, said he was a bit worried about crime before coming but he never considered missing the game between the Bulls and New Zealand’s Crusaders, a semifinal in the Southern Hemisphere’s top club competition.

Others found the Soweto trek too risky a prospect, but Boucher reckoned they were a minority.

“They still said they were not coming because they thought we were going to get robbed or killed,” he said.

Inside the stadium, the Bulls made sure the festive atmosphere continued, and each of the three tries they scored was loudly saluted by a crowd that, while mostly white, was much more diverse than it would have been at their traditional home ground.

Bulls CEO Barend van Graan has insisted that the rationale for picking Soweto’s Orlando Stadium was purely practical. The stadium was simply large enough, close enough and the quality of its pitch was sufficient to host such an important game. There is no denying though that the decision was also a shrewd public-relations move.

Based on their own research, the Bulls say most of their supporters are not white. This is an extremely surprising claim given that very few black fans go to Loftus to support the team. Ticket prices may play a role, but part of the blame lies with the racist taunts that still occasionally grace rugby fields, including the Bulls’.

Relocating Saturday’s game to Soweto will have done much to improve perceptions.

“It’s the best idea the Bulls have ever had because they’ve just secured a bigger fan base,” said Fannie van Dyck, a 45-year-old horned helmet-wearing, vuvuzela-blowing Bulls fan.

Rugby has long served as a barometer of race relations in South Africa. In 1995, worried that South Africa’s whites might emigrate en masse, Mandela made a point of personally promoting their beloved Springboks, the national rugby side,  at the Rugby World Cup tournament held in South Africa. Mandela's plan worked and the white crowd chanted his name when he handed the World Cup trophy to the Springboks captain, Francois Pienaar, a moment immortalized in the recent Clint Eastwood movie, “Invictus.”

Still, the black majority government remained frustrated with rugby’s slow pace of transformation. They pressured national selectors to pick more black players, and a black coach was finally installed in 2008.

What is different about the Bulls’ decision to play their match in Soweto is that it wasn’t the result of government pressure and that it reflects a true evolution in mentalities.

“I never thought it would happen,” said Musi Magupane, a 30-year-old rugby enthusiast from Soweto. “In 16 years we’ve gone forward as a nation.”

This coming Saturday, the Bulls will make yet another contribution to racial unity. After their convincing 39-24 victory, they decided to come back to Soweto to host the cup final.