South Africans take knee, vow to reject racism as season reopens

Pretoria (AFP) –


Several players took a knee and the national body recommitted to fighting racism as rugby restarted in South Africa Saturday after a six-month suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bulls defeated the Sharks 49-28 and the Stormers overcame the Lions 34-21 behind closed doors in warm-up matches between the four Super Rugby teams from the republic.

South African Sports Minister Nathi Mthethwa recently criticised eight South Africans with English club Sale Sharks for not taking a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A few Lions did make the gesture in support of racial justice at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria and the Sharks wore 'We say no to racism' t-shirts before the kick-off.

Before both matches a set of principles in which South African rugby rejects discrimination and racism was read over the public address system and included in the TV broadcast.

The credo began by stating "South African rugby is committed to an environment where all are welcome, irrespective of race, colour, creed or gender.

"We acknowledge the painful inequalities of our country's past -- and its present -- and that they must be eradicated.

"We must maintain and continuously improve an environment that is fair and respectful, where people from different backgrounds feel accepted and valued.

"Ours is a sport for all, where we celebrate diversity and inclusion and are committed to a better future for all.

"As South Africans, we have proved that we are stronger together. We will not be divided," it concluded.

- Tobias first black Springbok -

Although rugby has been played by all races in South Africa, only whites were allowed to represent the national team, the Springboks, for 90 years from its inception in 1891.

In 1981, Errol Tobias became the first black Springbok when he played against Ireland in Cape Town.

Progress toward a multi-racial national team has been tortuous, though, with only one black, now deceased Chester Williams, in the 1995 Rugby World Cup-winning team.

Two blacks, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana, were in the 2007 Springboks side that became world champions.

Racial transformation finally gathered urgency in 2018 under new national coach Rassie Erasmus and last year six black starters helped South Africa win the World Cup a third time.

Among them was Siya Kolisi, who overcame years living amid poverty to become the first black Test captain of the Springboks.

In Pretoria, Kolisi was among the five try scorers for the Stormers against the Lions and said it was "one of the toughest rugby matches I have played".

"Training alone, then in small groups for many months has been extremely challenging. I missed talking rubbish to my team-mates," said the loose forward.

The Bulls made a whirlwind start under new coach Jake White, who masterminded the Springboks' 2007 World Cup victory, scoring 35 unanswered points within 32 minutes.

A much better second-half showing from the Sharks yielded three tries, but it was hard to believe this was the side that topped the five-nation Super Rugby standings last March.