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RUGBYPASS+ The civil strife that shadows the Lions tour

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The civil strife that shadows the Lions tour

The current day-to-day South African life of young Andrew is more typical than that of Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions. In contrast to the tourists, there is no Covid-secure bubble or security detail to guarantee Andrew’s good health and safety. Lockdown life is miserable for Andrew and there’s no sign of him being able to escape it. I call my wife’s brother “young Andrew” though, to be honest, he’s nothing of the sort. Andrew may pass time pushing around toy police cars and fire engines but he’s actually a balding 58-year-old who lives permanently in a home for intellectually-challenged adults on the outskirts of Johannesburg. He still believes in Father Christmas and we love him dearly. But our family share a constant fear for his well-being.

It goes without saying that neither Covid nor the organised crime syndicates who rain terror over South Africa discriminate. Earlier this year, armed gunmen broke into Andrew’s home, held staff members hostage and demanded valuables with the menace of gun barrels held against heads. 

That was on just one dark night. On every other night over the past year, staff at the home have lived in fear of their Covid defences being breached. And it’s happened. Several of Andrew’s housemates have already succumbed to the virus and with the rate of infection and death accelerating, he has been confined to his room indefinitely. 

Andrew may be an exceptional individual but the lifestyle he currently leads, and the fears it prompts, are shared by the majority of South Africans. 

Chris Harris
The Lions have so far decided to continue despite rising Covid rates, violence and destruction in parts of South Africa (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

When Willie John McBride and his tourists were begged not to fly to the Highveld 47 years ago it was argued by anti-Apartheid protestors that it was impossible to play normal sport in an abnormal society. McBride and his squad flew out declaring they didn’t do politics. Now, it would be foolish to pretend the circumstances and issues blighting South Africa in 2021 bear any similarity to those of 1974 but neither a knave or fool would claim the country being toured by the current Lions squad is safer or more normal than the one the 1974 Lions flew in to.

There is no suggestion either squad will have their Test-match selections dictated any more by positive virus tests than they shall be by cases of sore ribs or tight hamstrings.

But does that mean the tour should be called off and Gatland’s squad sent home? 

As things stand, the Covid threat appears to be skilfully managed. There have been positive cases – and in the Springboks’ case a cancelled Test match – yet at the time of writing there is no suggestion either squad will have their Test-match selections dictated any more by positive virus tests than they shall be by cases of sore ribs or tight hamstrings. Perhaps more importantly, there is no reason to believe either squad is in danger of getting caught up in what Cyril Ramaphosa has described as an attempted insurrection which, according to the President, has been masterminded by friends and colleagues of the former leader Jacob Zuma.

Some areas of South Africa have been engulfed in flames following the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma (Photo by Rajesh Jantilal/AFP via Getty Images)

Make no mistake, South Africa is staring into the abyss. Just 26 years have passed since the Boks’ World Cup triumph played its role in apparently setting the country on a prosperous path. Yet that hope and goodwill has long dissipated. The achievements of South African rugby – continuing to win on the pitch while transforming the sport from a bastion of Afrikanerdom to one that truly reflects the nation it represents – have not been matched by those who run the country. The African National Congress, once celebrated as the globe’s greatest freedom movement, has become a symbol of corruption and incompetence. 

The violent events of the past fortnight, prompted by Zuma’s imprisonment and given momentum by the harsh consequences of lockdown, are in many respects a result of government failures and its inability to meet expectations. Ramaphosa’s so-called insurrection was the first case of widespread social unrest in the country since right-wing factions fought their own guerrilla war in the early 1990s. 

Had Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal gone up in flames over the Gallagher Premiership final weekend then it’s highly unlikely the Lions’ plane would have ever left the Edinburgh tarmac.

Make no mistake, the current situation is critical, the democracy in intensive care and, with Zuma’s other trial due to resume this week, it would be foolish of anyone to dismiss the possibility of a second wave of violence being sparked. 

I think it is also fair to say that had Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal gone up in flames over the Gallagher Premiership final weekend then it’s highly unlikely the Lions’ plane would have ever left the Edinburgh tarmac. But leave it did. And having since moved on to Cape Town, they are unquestionably in the safest possible place (in South Africa). 

Gauteng – Johannesburg, Pretoria and the huge single urban metropolis it is fast becoming – is the country’s most populous region and its economic hub. It comes as little surprise then that it is the epicentre of the epidemic and a focus of much of the civil unrest. KwaZulu-Natal is, as its name suggests, the home of the Zulu nation. The frequent reference to the tribal nature of politics in the UK has a more literal meaning in South Africa. Former President Zuma, imprisoned recently for contempt – he refused to submit himself to scrutiny by a commission investigating corruption during his eight years in office – was the country’s first Zulu leader. Most of his senior ANC colleagues and predecessors, like Nelson Mandela, were Xhosas and great tribal rivals whose spiritual home is the Eastern Cape. 

The Lions played South Africa A in Cape Town – and also the first Test – which has been relatively untouched by the civic unrest (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

So what impact does this have on the tour? Quite a lot. 

In fact, for as long as the tour stays in the Western Cape then there’s little chance of any of the trouble spilling on to the streets of Cape Town and its City Bowl. Cape Town, a two-hour flight from both Johannesburg and Durban, may well be the home of Parliament but it has long been out of step politically with the rest of the country. 

Political support in South Africa continues to be divided largely along racial lines and, with the Western Cape Town having a vastly different demographic profile to the rest of the country, it is inconceivable there will be any meaningful support for the turbulent faction should they double down on their efforts to destabilise the country. And that’s as good a reason as any to support the view the tour should continue… at least for as long as the tour doesn’t return to high-altitude, high-Covid and highly dangerous Johannesburg.

What’s more, when it comes to the Paul Heaton/Beautiful South “carry on regardless” maxim, South Africa does have form when it comes to letting the show go on despite the fact chaos is going off on the periphery. 

Springboks win World Cup
Despite enjoying continued success on the rugby pitch, South Africa has major social issues off it (Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

In April 1993, when history reflects South Africa really was teetering, Super Rugby was at its embryonic stage. It was still two years until Louis Luyt, Ian Frykberg and Russell Macmillan signed the Newscorp deal in BSkyB boss Sam Chisholm’s London flat that heralded the professional age. The Super 10 was in its inaugural season and Transvsaal, captained by Francois Pienaar, were going well and apparently destined to meet Sean Fitzpatrick’s Auckland in the final. 

But then came the event that shook South Africa to its core. Teetering on the brink, balancing on a knife edge – adopt whatever analogy you like – the cold-blooded assassination of struggle hero Chris Hani, shot in broad daylight on his front lawn, was designed to provoke a bloodbath. And it almost succeeded. The then-President FW de Klerk immediately sent 23,000 troops on to the streets in anticipation of a popular uprising – interestingly, that’s 2,000 fewer than Ramaphosa has deployed this week in the face of a similar threat – and it soon emerged the shooter had been a Polish right-wing sympathiser who was put up to it by a SA Conservative Party shadow minister, Clive Derby-Lewis.  

Hani, who might himself have become president after Mandela, was buried a week later. Ironically, the funeral took place at the same stadium to the south-west of Johannesburg where the second and third Boks v Lions Tests are still scheduled to take place. 

Throughout the weekend of Hani’s funeral, hundreds of thousands of black South Africans took to the streets of Johannesburg to protest and celebrate their fallen comrade. The atmosphere was febrile. Violence on a murderous scale seemed inevitable. South Africa braced itself. 

Meanwhile, Transvaal’s rugby squad resolutely prepared for their scheduled Super 10 fixture against North Harbour at Ellis Park. That day, I criss-crossed Johannesburg to collect a friend to take to the game, finding many streets blocked and the Ben Schoeman highway that links Johannesburg and Pretoria closed to traffic as thousands of mourners headed south on foot along the motorway from the populous Alexandra township on their 15-mile march towards the funeral site.

South Africa, a beautiful yet scarred nation, has the remarkable – perhaps unique – ability to carry on doing normal things while on the horizon the inferno is burning and threatening to engulf everything.

Mandela, the man whose powers of forgiveness, persuasion and plain decency ultimately steered South Africa away from the bloodshed, spoke at the funeral and, in his most turbulent speech since leaving prison, condemned De Klerk’s machine. “This secret web of hitmen and covert operations is funded by our taxes,” Mandela told mourners.

The inference was clear – Mandela believed a so-called “third force” under national control were fermenting violence to further their own political objectives. Ramaphosa, a man with all the charisma and passion of a speak-your-weight machine, has been delivering largely the same message on his almost nightly addresses to the nation this week.

Back in 1993 and as the people were mourning their hero at one iconic sporting venue, so Pienaar, just a few miles away, was leading Transvaal to victory at another. 

It is the best example I can draw on to characterise how South Africa, a beautiful yet scarred nation, has the remarkable – perhaps unique – ability to carry on doing normal things while on the horizon the inferno is burning and threatening to engulf everything. So it begs the question, with a survival instinct as keen as that, what right do we have to question the Boks’ and Lions’ determination to press on and play the three-Test series?

More stories from Martin Gillingham

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