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Rugby match in Soweto uplifts South Africa

Whites and blacks celebrate together in prelude to World Cup.

“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.