This past May, Elton Jantjies, the rugby ace who kicked the penalty drop ball to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup final for the South African national rugby union team (known as the Springboks) made a different type of headline.
According to the Associated Press’s Gerald Imray, Jantjies was arrested for alleged inflight vandalism and intimidating a hostess aboard an Emirates airplane cruising to Johannesburg, South Africa.
As News 24 tweeted, “Jantjies allegedly spent 10 minutes banging on the toilet door of an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai to Johannesburg until his fists bled, saying ‘Komaan, my skat (Come on, my darling)’ to an air hostess hiding in the cubicle.” Once the story became public, something disturbing but predictable emerged in South Africa’s Twittersphere: a fiery debate on rugby laced with racist micro-aggressions.
White South African rugby trolls went on the attack, throwing coded but disgusting racial remarks. These included one tweet from a now-suspended account asserting that Jantjies’ genes have not evolved since 1652, that his selection to the Springboks is due to his skin color and not his athletic prowess; his bad behavior is ‘on brand’ or is characteristic of his ethnicity, that his “ego exceeds [his] brain,” and even that his muscular features point to “anabolic intramuscular steroids.”
Sensing where this was going, Black South Africa rugby fans felt too offended to remain quiet. “What sucks about this whole thing is that they are gonna turn into how ill-disciplined (rugby) players of color are,” observed one Black Twitter user as the racist tweets against Jantjies began to mount.
The arrest of Jantjies, and the discourse around it, shows that the bigotry of some white South African rugby fans is not only established, but stubbornly pervasive.
“I suspect that some of the same exact people who came down hard on Jantjies immediately apologized for Eben Etzebeth when he got caught up in accusations of racism (in 2019),” noted Prof. Derek Charles Catsam, a sports historian at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin who has written extensively on rugby and race in South Africa.
According to the Daily Mail, the 6’8″ Etzebeth was accused, in an August 2019 incident of some notoriety, of racially abusing and pistol-whipping two men in South African coastal town Langebaan after a night out. Two years later, prosecutors in the Western Cape province declined to press charges against Etzebeth, who has gone on to make his 100th appearance for the Springboks.
As one fan put it, “Can already see how many people are going to gun for [Jantjies’] head,” before observing, “Yet, when it was Eben, innocent until proven guilty.”
What should have been a straightforward discussion about an athlete’s court case was swiftly swept into the large, vicious echo chamber of racial bigotry in South Africa.
At the core of the row is that Jantjies is a ‘Colored’ rugby star. Colored is a colloquial term pinned on South Africans of mixed Black and Dutch European parentage, though many ‘Colored’ South Africans are simply categorized as ‘Black’ in daily parlance.
It’s also important to note that South Africa is the world’s most unequal country, according to an Al-Jazeera story from March 2022 built around a World Bank report that “race playing a determining factor in a society where 10 percent of the population owns more than 80 percent of the wealth.”
Who owns rugby?
Both Colored and Black rugby players in South Africa have faced a century of exclusion from the Springboks, the country’s wildly successful rugby national team. Integration of players of color into the Springboks team improved significantly after 1994, when Apartheid rule ended in South Africa.
However, rugby is still a fierce symbol of white Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa. The term Afrikaners refers to descendants of Dutch European settlers who arrived in the 1650s, and later crafted Apartheid, a racist form of governance that the United Nations would come to decry as a “crime against humanity.”
But fierce resistance to equity in rugby remains. The Springboks were famously taken to court in 2015 to prevent them from participating in the sport’s World Cup; France 24’s account noted that Agency for a New Agenda leader Edward Mokhoanatse, said the team was “built on racially-exclusionary and racially-biased criteria,” with just nine Black players on the 31-member squad.
“(Rugby) can still be a central part of Afrikaner heritage — certainly Afrikaners produce many (great) players, some of my favorites,” said Catsam.
However, after 1994, rugby was strategically positioned as a “racial reconciliation” sport in South Africa, when a thrilled Nelson Mandela hoisted the 1995 World Cup trophy in South Africa. Since then, a number of rugby players of Color in South Africa have featured in the commercial domestic league and the Springboks national team.
The first three Black Springboks after 1994 — Errol Tobias, Avril Williams, and Chester Williams — came from the South African Colored community. As Catsam related to the Daily Dot, Bryan Habana was International Rugby Board player of the year and led the Springboks to the 2007 World Cup, retiring with the most tries in Tier One test rugby. Siya Kolisi, who currently captains the World Cup title-holding Springboks, is Black.
Peter de Villiers, the Springboks’ first-ever coach of Color, told the Daily Dot that the presence of players like Kolisi provides evidence against the racist myth that rugby is a “White sport.”
‘They don’t own rugby’
As the racial transformation of rugby in South Africa gathered steam, so has racist disgruntlement from white South Africans who claim they’re losing “their sport,” and that Black and Colored players are just beneficiaries of equity rather than being good enough to compete.
“Transformation became an excuse for white fans and others in the rugby world who did not want to see change,” Catsam observed. “Tough for those who feel that way. They don’t own rugby. It is not their sport to stake proprietary claims over.”
While Black and Colored rugby players in South Africa flourished, coaches and administrators of color are still largely being shut out.
“In 1994 (after independence), this side of white rugby (coaching and admin exclusion of POC) continued,” Wilbur Kraak, a top South African rugby sport scientist and professor of sports science at Stellenbosch University who has coached various teams across his country and mentored the Nigerian national team.
‘A coach of color, they don’t wanna give you the same resources as your [white] counterpart,” he told the Daily Dot. “From a South African context, there are more players of color than coaches of color in South Africa. If you look into administrative appointments higher up, it doesn’t look like that.”
Kraak noted that while Black coaches in South Africa are fully capable, the metaphorical goalposts keep shifting for them. He contended that as soon as one meets the needed qualifications, more certifications are then required.
“I think they see people of color as ‘they are gonna take away this rugby that belongs to us.'”
This is the lived experience of De Villiers, still the only non-white Springboks coach in their history
“I was judged by the color of my skin wherever I went,” De Villiers told The Daily Dot.
‘They want you to fail so much’
Being a rugby coach of color in South Africa means living with the invisible pressure of knowing that rugby is a “white people setting,” and that no matter what a Black person’s role is (be it player, coach, or administrator, that person must “behave well” on and off the field to continue meeting the expectations of whites.
De Villiers observed, “They want you to fail so much so they could comfortably point fingers at the incompetence of rugby professionals of color.”
While De Villiers oversaw the Springboks in 2008, he famously threatened “to give back the job to the Whites” over a bizarre blackmail video episode. According to a Reuters story at the time, local media reported allegations that De Villiers had been videotaped having sex with a woman in a car, but De Villiers characterized the surrounding blackmail rumors as part of a “racist plot” to oust him.
As for Jantjies, his story has taken another turn that’s engaged social media in much the same way as the arrest reports did several months prior.
In late October, Jantjies checked himself into a Cape Town drug rehabilitation center, continuing a tumultuous few months for the player. According to Jacaranda FM, the player had also been accused of having an affair with the team’s dietitian and had been removed from the team for a November tour.
Cape Talk noted that some fans did show support for Jantjies via social media since the news went public. But even still, the news of his rehab stint led to some more online back-and-forth embued with racial tensions. When one fan responded to the news by commenting, “I don’t want him representing my country ever again,” another responded, “Your country??” with a series of laughing emojis.
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