OPINION | Marius Roodt: It may be cliched, but SA can emulate Springbok success - News24

South Africa made history this weekend by becoming the first team to win four Rugby World Cup titles, and only the second team to win two titles in a row.

Marius Roodt

South Africa made history this weekend by becoming the first team to win four Rugby World Cup titles, and only the second team to win two titles in a row.

Much has been made of how the South African rugby side reflects the country at its best, world beaters whose success has been drawn from all South Africa's peoples. 

Much was also made of the appearance of President Cyril Ramaphosa on the winners' podium, with memes on social media criticising the president celebrating with the Springboks. Several people contrasted Ramaphosa putting himself in front of the cameras with the Springboks, and seeming to engage in a moment of "stolen valour", with Rassie Erasmus, former Springbok coach and the current director of South African rugby, staying in the background and letting the players enjoy their moment of triumph.

One can't blame Ramaphosa for trying to bask in the reflected glory of the Springboks. While the national rugby team reflects the best of what South Africa can offer, Ramaphosa, his party, and the government, which he and his party head, reflect the worst. 

Proper planning 

We are the best rugby side in the world, but this is one of the few things at which South Africa excels. When we look at metrics of governance or other measures of success, this country is a confirmed also-ran. 

Economic growth is moribund and is nowhere close to keeping up with population growth, while practically half of South Africans are unemployed. Crime continues to plague the country, with South Africa ranking as the third-most murderous society on Earth. On other metrics, such as education and healthcare, South Africa continues to do poorly too.

And we must not forget, behind those statistics are real people. The failures of education, for example, have real consequences. Children fated to attend a failing school, where there is little interest from teachers in their education, have almost no chance of reaching their full potential, with all that means for their future earning potential and simply being able to live their life to the full.

Much ink has already been spilt about how the Springboks should be emulated by the government and its various institutions. That is all well and good, but what did the Springboks do, and what can the government and other institutions learn from it?

The success of the Springboks was not a fluke. It happened because of proper planning and well-laid plans. 

Before Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber returned to South Africa at the end of 2017, the Springboks were doing poorly. In the 2015 Rugby World Cup, despite making the semi-finals, South Africa lost to Japan in the group stages, one of the greatest upsets in global sporting history. That same year, South Africa lost to Argentina for the first time and the following year to Italy for the first time, and in 2017, the team suffered record defeats to Ireland and New Zealand.

Even after Erasmus took over (officially being appointed coach in early 2018), the Springboks were ranked fifth and sixth for most of that year and 2019, an acceptable fate for most other rugby countries but not for the Springboks. 

Even heading into the 2019 World Cup, the Springboks were ranked fifth in the world, but went on to win the tournament, subsequently also beating the British and Irish Lions and retaining the World Cup title.

It wasn't about luck

South Africa didn’t win the 2019 and 2023 World Cups or become the best team in the world through luck. They achieved these feats through meticulous planning and through harnessing all the resources at their disposal.

At the same time, the platform for later success was put in place long before the triumphs of 2019 and 2023. This had been through development programmes and pathways implemented by SA Rugby – which, for much of the time, had been implemented and managed by Erasmus himself.

This had seen Erasmus and SA Rugby identify talented individuals (both players and coaches) in communities which had not dominated South African rugby to the same degree that, for example, white South Africans in general, and Afrikaners in particular, had.

At the same time, Erasmus and Nienaber transformed the Springboks, but in the positive sense of the word. White South Africans were not simply replaced with black South Africans, with no thought given to merit or skill. Rather, they created an environment where all people felt included, no matter their racial or language background.

And this paid dividends. As Erasmus has been at pains to point out, he did not appoint Siya Kolisi as captain because he was black, but rather because he was the best man for the job, an appointment that is paying dividends, with Kolisi now being one of the most admired people in South Africa.

It has now become something of a dark joke to say the Springboks are one of the few world-class South African institutions that still exist. But the national rugby team did not become world-beaters through luck or divine intervention. It was through preparation, hard work, and utilising all the talent at its disposal.

This basic blueprint can work for the country as a whole, too, and for other institutions. It won't be easy but it's doable, as the Springboks have shown. 

The primary question, though, is whether the ANC government would be prepared to do the hard work to make South Africa a winning nation. On the face of the evidence, the answer is no.

Marius Roodt is a writer and senior analyst at the Institute of Race Relations.