As the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions close in on the first Test of what was supposed to be an epic 2021 series, most of South Africa has been distracted during the build-up. Rugby – and participating in or enjoying any form of sport, arts and culture – has felt frivolous and irrelevant over the past month.
People have died in their hundreds amid a tsunami-like third Covid wave that hit Gauteng – the province where Johannesburg and Tshwane are located. More lives altered for ever, more pain, more suffering, more children without parents in a country where single mothers, or unemployed grandmothers, are struggling to feed them.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, you can add into the mix further death and ruined livelihoods because of recent civil unrest. That on top of a potentially crippling energy crisis as the power supplier Eskom’s ageing and neglected infrastructure continues to collapse, resulting in regular power outages for many homes and businesses. And, putting the icing on this particularly vile cake, there is a 33% unemployment rate.
To say these have been trying times in South Africa is as obvious as saying the sun is hot. Not since the former apartheid activist Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993, when the country came to brink of a civil war, has South Africa listed so precariously.
The Lions tour, already beset by angst over the Covid situation, faced a new threat in civil unrest in the past two weeks. The only piece of good fortune that this tour has encountered was that Warren Gatland’s team happened to leave Johannesburg for Cape Town on the day rioting and looting broke out in Gauteng.
The Mother City was relatively calm by comparison and once ensconced in their luxurious hotel the Lions were never going to return to Johannesburg under current conditions. They had emergency meetings with SA Rugby and security officials. The entire tour will now play out in Cape Town until the end.
If someone had drawn up a plan for this tour with the aim of deliberately sabotaging it by scheduling it during the most undesirable period in more than a generation in South Africa, they could not have planned it any better. It was always going to be an awkward Lions series once the decision was made to continue in vast, empty stadiums in South Africa, instead of populated arenas in Britain.
As unpalatable as that scenario was, there was at least some hope that South Africans would be able to gather in large groups of a maximum of 100 people. South Africans expected to light fires, gather for braais and drink some of the sponsors’ brew to cheer on Siya Kolisi’s team from shebeens, taverns and homes across the country. Then came the Delta variant and we were locked down under Level 4 conditions: no gatherings allowed, alcohol sales banned, a 9pm curfew imposed, pubs and restaurants trading under very restrictive conditions and schools closed.
That poured further ice water on an already damp Lions tour. But just in case South Africans didn’t have it hard enough, riots and looting coincided with the lockdown. Rugby then, has been pushed to the margins of national consciousness. In what seems like a distant sepia-toned past, when Kolisi raised the Webb Ellis Cup on that beautiful Yokohama night, the Lions loomed as the next biggest challenge to the world champions.
South Africa was hardly a utopia in October and November 2019, but the Boks had given hope to a country seemingly always fighting some potentially societal collapsing incident. After a decade of Jacob Zuma’s graft-riddled presidency t, South Africa needed some hope.
Zuma was ousted just months before the Rugby World Cup in 2019. Kolisi was a positive symbol of the best of South Africa, who emerged from the worst of circumstances to lead a multicultural side to glory. The country rightly revelled and celebrated. For a brief period there was unity as people basked in the reflected glory provided by the Springboks.
Covid quickly relegated that brief, happy period to the sidelines as not only South Africa but the world buckled under the pandemic in early 2020. Although all countries strained and suffered pain, those cushioned by strong economies and robust public services started with fewer handicaps than nations such as South Africa.
Still, in the spirit of a country that keeps defying the odds, South Africans have rallied at all levels to alleviate the worst effects of the pandemic on the most vulnerable through generous gestures and a can-do spirit. Out-of-work chefs started feeding schemes, and tutors used Whatsapp and other tools to provide vital maths lessons to disadvantaged high-school students.
But the challenges keep coming. Riots, sparked by Zuma’s incarceration for refusing to appear at a constitutionally appointed commission to investigate the years of corruption during his stained presidency, resulted in 234 more deaths and billions in damages. It exposed the thin veneer of law and order in the country as police in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, Zuma’s stronghold, were caught unaware or unmotivated to stop the anarchy.
An orchestrated insurrection campaign by Zuma cronies left a trail of destruction across KZN that will take years to rebuild, if it can be rebuilt at all. It exposed South Africa’s many and varied fault lines and gave a terrible glimpse of a dystopian future for the privileged. Millions of poor are already living it.
In the midst of the burning buildings, shattered glass and broken dreams as businesses and lives were ruined, it was left to average citizens to protect what they could and, more inspiringly, clean up the mess afterwards. Once again South Africans rallied and responded.
Yes, the Lions are here. They will play the Springboks and the matches will no doubt showcase superb players performing at their peak, high-quality coaching and the glorious traits that define their abilities – discipline, dedication, sacrifice and skill among them.
By their very appearance on a field, the Boks and Lions are demonstrating the finest values of society. Sportspeople at that level do not get there without those traits. They are characteristics that South Africa desperately needs to see right now.
Many South Africans will still find a way to enjoy the games and the occasion. But now, more than ever, they will also reflect on what the country has been through over these troubled weeks and months.In that context the outcome of a rugby series is not a matter of life or death. Even if it happens to be against a team as heralded and storied as the British & Irish Lions.
Craig Ray is the sports editor of the Daily Maverick and is based in Cape Town.