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Court bid to bar ‘too-white’ Springboks from Rugby World Cup

Rodger Bosch, AFP | South Africa captain Jean de Villiers (left) and prop Tendai Mtawarira attend the unveiling of the Springbok's new jersey in Cape Town on June 4, 2015.

A fringe political party in South Africa has made an urgent court bid to block the Springboks from taking part in next month’s Rugby World Cup, claiming the squad’s selection process was biased in favour of white players.

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The startling move was confirmed on Monday by the Agency for a New Agenda (ANA), a virtually unknown group that says it broke off from the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Its leader, Edward Mokhoanatse, said the national rugby team was “built on racially-exclusionary and racially-biased criteria”, pointing out that only nine of its 31 players are black.

“We are asking the court to stop them from going [to the world cup, hosted by England] and order them to surrender their passports,” Mokhoanatse told reporters.

His complaint, which is aimed at Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula and the South African Rugby Union (SARU), is scheduled for a hearing at the high court in Pretoria on Wednesday.

Fraught history

While the court bid is unlikely to succeed, it has touched a raw nerve in the “Rainbow Nation”, where rugby has struggled to shed its reputation as a bastion of white privilege.

The sport became a symbol of national reconciliation two decades ago, when then-President Nelson Mandela famously wore a Springbok jersey to present captain François Pienaar with the 1995 Rugby World Cup on home soil.

At the time, many black South Africans heeded Mandela’s call to rally behind the national team, breaking away from the Apartheid-era tradition of supporting any team but the “Boks”.

But the racial composition of the Springboks has remained a sensitive issue, with the increased presence of black players in junior leagues failing to translate into game time at the national level.

Black empowerment

Officially, there is no sports equivalent to the country’s “Black Economic Empowerment” programme, designed to help traditionally disadvantaged communities to access jobs and property.

But since 2006 the ANC has put pressure on rugby’s governing body to ensure that between 7 and 10 players in the national team are black, Asian or mixed race.

Until ANA’s court bid, the Springbok’s current coach Heyneke Meyer had won plaudits for selecting nine black and mixed race players for the world cup – including from the influential Congress of South African Trade Unions.

It remains to be seen how many games they will actually play. When South Africa last lifted the cup in 2007, the likes of Ricky Januarie, Akona Ndungane and Ashwin Willemse each played just one game and spent the rest of the tournament on the bench.

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