JOHANNESBURG – Even before the full-time whistle went, Sakhumzi bar in Johannesburg’s Soweto township erupted into frenzy of cheering and singing as South Africa closed in on a 32-12 victory over England at the Rugby World Cup Final in Japan.
The crowd at this outdoor bar on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, made famous by being the home of two of the most celebrated resisters of apartheid – late former President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — reflected the harmonious multiracial society that South Africa still aspires to become.
Black, white and some mixed-race fans donned springbok shirts and shared drinks as their team dominated against England to bring the cup back home.
For many, this was South Africa’s most unifying game of rugby since the 1995 World Cup final win against the All Blacks of New Zealand, when Mandela donned a springbok jersey to unite a nation trying to heal the scars left over from racist white minority rule.
Mandela had become the country’s first black president the year before after the first democratic elections brought apartheid to an end.
“I’m so proud. It’s our first win with a black captain,” said Sibusiso Radebe, 37, an insurance underwriter, referring to captain Siya Kolisi.
“In ‘95 the game was still dominated by whites but that has really changed,” he said, as fans chanted “Siya” behind him.
Even for long after that South African rugby continued to be dogged by allegations of racism and excluding promising black players.
AN INSPIRATIONAL CAPTAIN
This time, six non-white players were included in the starting line-up facing England, including Kolisi. His rise from the poverty of a township in Eastern Cape to bring home the cup as captain is a rags-to-riches story many South Africans would love to repeat.
“With a captain who is black and leading the boys to victory, so black, white and colored, we are all united,” said Nobuzwe Msengana, also 37. She traveled from Cape Town to watch the match in Soweto.
As she spoke, cars drove past honking their horns and waving South Africa’s flag.
“This will inspire the youth. Rugby is still seen as a white man’s sport. You go to the townships: they only play soccer. People don’t play rugby. This will encourage them.”
Patrick Devine, a 53-year-old white South African, brought his 13-year-old son Conor to watch the match in Soweto, wanting him to experience this part of Johannesburg.
“This is just phenomenal,” he said, breaking into tears. “South Africa is in a hard place right now. If we’d lost I would have been broken-hearted.”