The 2015 Rugby World Cup, which opens in England on September 18, may have to go on without one of the teams favored to win the Cup, the South Africa Springboks, as the national team in the former apartheid nation faces a legal challenge over its alleged failure to select a sufficient number of black players to the World Cup side.
Apartheid, a brutal system of strict racial segregation and discrimination against the majority black population by the minority white government, existed in South Africa from 1948 until 1994. From the early 1980s until the early ’90s, most South Africa national sports teams — including rugby, the most popular sport among the South African white community — were banned from taking part in international competition.
But with the demise of the apartheid system and the election of President Nelson Mandela, those bans were quickly lifted. Mandela’s support of the Springboks — as the national rugby team is called — in the 1995 World Cup which was both hosted and ultimately won by South Africa became a powerful force for national unity.
But 20 years later, less than three weeks before the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the team and the country, again find themselves in the midst of controversy over an alleged preference for white players.
A small and largely unknown political party in South Africa, the Agency For A New Agenda, has filed a a court action against the South Africa Rugby Union and the country’s sports minister Fikile Mbabula, demanding that the team’s players and officials turn in their passports, barring them from traveling to the United Kingdom for the Rugby World Cup.
The team is supposed to be comprised of at least 30 percent black players, and the World Cup squad of 31 includes nine non-white players — or 29 percent.
“The action is a public duty to defend our constitution and to consign to the rubbish bin of history all vestiges and remnants of racial bigotry, racial exclusion and discrimination,” said ANA President Edward Mahlomola Mokhoanatse.
While only the ANA is behind the court action, the SARU has come under criticism in recent months from other quarters as well, for its apparent slowness to adopt a policy of “transformation” in the sport which has been traditionally white-dominated in South Africa
“Transformation is being stopped by having all the white coaches there to push an agenda to stop it,” former South Africa Coach Peter de Villiers. “They stopped a natural evolution of transformation, they never let it go on to become great and we would never have had this problem now.”
But Bryan Habana, one of the nine non-white players on the current Springboks squad and a veteran of three World Cups — including the 2007 tournament won by South Africa — says he supports the current coach, Heyneke Meyer.
“I’m fully behind Heyneke’s standing in the situation and wanting to make this World Cup a successful one for South Africa,” Habana told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “I hope as players we can play our part in making his job a little bit easier. Having won the World Cup in 2007, I know that when we are successful we unite the nation.”
The Rugby World Cup opens on September 18 and runs through October 31. South Africa is scheduled to open its campaign with a game against Japan on September 19.
[Image: Phil Walter / Getty Images]