Thousands of people cheered as the World Cup-winning Springboks traveled through the Johannesburg township where they were once despised on Thursday for a homecoming tour steeped with symbolism.
South Africa defeated archrivals New Zealand 12-11 in a thrilling final last Saturday in Paris to win a record fourth Rugby World Cup title and their second in a row.
Teenagers in school uniforms danced in Soweto, while others, young and old, waved South African flags and yellow posters stating “thank you Bokke (Springboks)” while waiting for the yellow and green open-top bus transporting the players.
Dined Malise, 49, dressed in a green and gold t-shirt, went home a couple hours before the team’s expected arrival to get a perfect location along the route.
“I’m so proud about my Bokke (Springboks), especially my captain,” she said before breaking into a “Viva Bokke, Viva!” cry of joy.
The players, wearing yellow t-shirts with the team’s motto “Stronger Together,” rode along one of Soweto’s main avenues, with captain Siya Kolisi cheering the crowd from the front, brandishing the Webb Ellis Cup.
The team began its victory tour earlier in the day in Pretoria, where the country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa hailed the players for uniting a country with a divisive past.
“Saturday night, you strode off the pitch of victory and passed into legend,” said Ramaphosa, who this week declared a public holiday on December 15 to celebrate the win.
“In doing so you have lifted the spirits of an entire nation and filled us with pride.”
For the past 90 years, Springbok selectors have solely chosen white players, with black and mixed-race sportsmen placed in different categories.
After the establishment of democracy in 1994, Nelson Mandela famously rallied behind the team that won its first World Cup in 1995.
“This is the one time when everybody forgets whether they are black or white,” said Vincent Mokgako, 65, who was seated close outside the house where Mandela used to live in Soweto, which is now a museum.
The Springboks would have gotten a “hostile” response in what was once a hotspot of anti-apartheid movement, according to the social worker who was “born and bred” in the township.
“This is this is a legacy that Mandela left, that sports always brings people together,” he said.
In recent years, Kolisi, 32, has been pivotal in bringing many young, black South Africans closer to the sport.
“We are very diverse, just like you are outside there and we just wanted to show that diversity is our strength,” Kolisi, the Springboks’ first black Test captain, said earlier dedicating the trophy to “the people of South Africa”.
The Springboks, who also came through Soweto following their 2019 victory, “were not a thing here,” said Lindiwe Mkhize, 43, a local resident.
Soweto has long been the domain of the round ball, as it is home to two of South Africa’s biggest football clubs, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
However, rugby “is becoming more popular by the day,” according to Mkhize, a teacher, who hopes that the team’s visit will be followed by investments in rugby infrastructure to help local students pursue their ambitions and dispel the myth that “rugby is not for us as black people.”
The recent achievement brought delight to a country that the World Bank still describes as the most unequal in the world, with unemployment, crime, and electricity and water difficulties.
“We are not happy but the Boks make us forget for a while that… There is still a lot of people who are under poverty, who are starving around here,” said Mokgako.
The Springboks will go to Cape Town on Friday, Durban on Saturday and East London on Sunday.
“The performance of the Springboks…has reminded us that even amidst our many challenges, there is always room for optimism and hope,” said Ramaphosa.