I should be grateful to President Cyril Ramaphosa for declaring my birthday on December 15 a public holiday.
My day of birth, of course, never featured in his calculation and is unknown to him. But declaring December 15 a public holiday, six weeks after the epic World Cup victory the mighty Springboks reaped on Saturday in Paris, is an attempt by a beleaguered head of state to sprinkle some of their stardust on his own head. And to pivot a sporting win into bankable political capital.
Springbok rugby in SA right now is “the most valuable and most abused political currency in the land”, to transpose The Economist’s description of the centenary of Ataturk in Turkey. From corporates to newspapers and, especially, political parties, green and gold is the new fashion black.
Before December 15 was added to its roster, SA with 12 was in the upper league of countries with the greatest number of public holidays. And perhaps it’s like the Grinch who Stole Christmas to question the wisdom of Ramaphosa’s announcement. Except when in parliament tomorrow, Enoch Godongwana lays bare the facts of our economic crisis, a more stringent and sober approach from the top leadership in these dire times might be more appropriate.
But in the 30 minutes before he announced the new holiday in his televised public address on Monday evening, Ramaphosa essentially embarked on a free advertorial of his government’s “successes” quite unrelated to the sporting triumph hard won by the Bokke on Saturday evening.
There was something counterfeit about the entire exercise, and it left many critics unimpressed.
Journalist Tim du Plessis wrote on X: “Ramaphosa is pathetic beyond belief. He’s just abusing the Springbok’s glorious victory as a launch pad for a load of bullshit ANC government propaganda. Next time ask Siya Kolisi on how a true leader should rise to an occasion such as this.”
Chris Vick, a PR maven who has previously advised ANC politicians, wrote on Ramaphosa’s TV speech: “Shame. You tuned in thinking you might get a Springbok Day off but it turned out to be a medium-term state of the nation with even less substance than the February thing. Talk about not reading the room.”
Of course, and I know whereof I speak here, Ramaphosa is hardly the first or indeed last political leader to seek reflected glory off the field from those who grinded out a victory on it.
So why would Ramaphosa’s co-option of the Springboks to his own political agenda cause so much mockery and derision? And prove to be so clunky and ham-fisted?
For example, a social media meme that went viral captioned the photograph of Cyril greeting Siya: “A beloved South African leader, admired and respected by all his people! He is seen shaking hands with Cyril Ramaphosa.”
In his post-match victory remarks the extraordinary and genuinely humble Bok captain, Kolisi, summed up a lot of what the national sentiment is genuinely about, and not the counterfeit confection dished up by the president on Monday evening.
He said: “There is so much going wrong in our country, we are the last line of defence … There are so many people who come from where I come from who are helpless and there Is so much division, but we can show with people from different backgrounds that it is possible to work together.”
Indeed, wise and inspiring and a somewhat pointed rejoinder to the man who sits atop the administration responsible for “so much going wrong in our country”.
Given the handsome tributes paid by Kolisi and his teammates to the extraordinary coaching and technical leadership of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, if ANC cadre deployment prescripts had been used in management selection by the Bokke, neither would have been appointed.
As for the diverse and super talented team themselves? Certainly, Springbok rugby has made giant strides in selecting an entirely meritorious team which looks more like SA itself than the 1995 winning Boks did (with just one player who was not white). But rugby used the intervening 28 years to build a pipeline of talent, concentrating on the supply rather than the demand side. ANC policies (which amount to crude racial bean-counting and racial proportional representation) would, if applied in Springbok team selection, have seen more than half the winning team deselected.
And of course, if SA Rugby was a state-owned company most of its coffers would have been pilfered and stolen and none of the wrongdoers convicted. Despite sonorous promises to do so.
Clearly — and not just in matters of rugby — Ramaphosa sees himself in the mould of Nelson Mandela, and his attempts to pivot the 2023 Rugby World Cup champions into personal and political success is an attempt to channel the Madiba Magic at Ellis Park in August 1995 into something of its approximation at the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday evening and afterward.
There are many reasons why I suspect this will be unsuccessful — some are listed above — and the obvious one that Mandela was an iconic leader in a league of his own.
Having eye-witnessed that day in Johannesburg when Mandela stole the hearts of the largely white stadium and helped the Springboks to victory against the odds, I can attest to the difference between then and now, despite the result in both cases.
It was journalist John Carlin who lifted the extraordinary backstory on how Mandela determined to graft the Springbok story onto the national tapestry and cement the early and tumultuous days of our young democracy into a durable structure.
While Invictus is the Hollywood movie which captures so well and largely accurately Mandela’s role in this epic victory, it was the title of Carlin’s documentary on the president’s role in the team’s success which captured the moment and the days and months before Ellis Park. He called the film The 16th Man, giving recognition to how Mandela memorialised all the players names before meeting them.
He recounts how wing James Small — sadly deceased — described meeting Mandela before the first RWC 1995 match against Australia: “It was kind of like we were his disciples. He had touched us with his hand and said, ‘Come on, let’s have a go’ — and there we were. We were his tools. He’s a clever man. By the energy he gave us, he was our 16th man. Without him we wouldn’t have won.”
So it was not simply a question of jetting into the final with a vast entourage, it was in numberless background acts which sealed the deal.
But unlike his successors, Mandela also knew back then that he needed to expend some of his own vast political capital to achieve the results he wanted.
Mandela, as Carlin recounts, addressed an ANC rally in KwaZulu-Natal the day before the Springboks faced France in the RWC semis in Durban.
As Mandela later told the author, “You know, John, they booed me. When I said these Springbok boys are now ours, my own people they booed me. I then had to harangue them and said to them: ‘Don’t be short-sighted, don’t be emotional. Nation-building means we have to pay a price, as well as the whites have to pay a price. For them to open the sports for blacks, for us to say we must embrace the team is paying a price. That’s what we should do. And now the booing calmed down.”
Little wonder in the jubilant moments after SA clinched the 1995 final, also against New Zealand, there was a famous and later a much-reported exchange between Bok captain Francois Pienaar and Mandela. Mandela said to Pienaar: “Thank you for what you have done for our country. And Pienaar ‘with immense presence of mind’ responded, ‘No, Mr President, thank you for what you have done for our country.’”
We do not yet have a record of the exchange on Saturday evening between current Bok champion captain Kolisi and the president of the country. But it might not include Pienaar’s words.