Books always give me an excuse to talk about sports. On Saturday, South Africa’s national team, the Springboks, was soundly defeated by the New Zealand All Blacks in Cape Town. They are now bottom of the Tri-Nations (the other competitor is Australia). But more than a decade ago, after its ban lifted on playing internationally and fielding its first representative teams, the game was in much better shape as South Africa won the Rugby World Cup at its first attempt in 1995. That tournament, especially, the final, has now been consigned to lore. But its significance beyond sport is still talked up as the New York Times’s former South African correspondent Bill Keller reminds us in his review of British journalist John Carlin’s new book Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation (soon to be made into a movie with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon).
BTW, Keller can’t resist either repeating inaccuracies and slurs. He writes, for example, that
[rugby] was a sport that most blacks considered–if they considered it at all–’the brutish, alien pastime of a brutish alien people.’
This myth of rugby as a white sport with blacks first starting to play the game at the end of Apartheid is now thoroughly discredited, but it continues both in and outside South Africa.
As for the stereotype of Afrikaners as a “brutish alien people” that’s kind of a stock phrase in foreign correspondents’ writings. I’ll add to it Keller’s man-crush on Francois Pienaar, the South African captain, later in the review as “a 6-foot-4 model of Afrikaner manhood.”