The Rugby World Cup and the Born Free Dancing Victory

By Dr Heike Schmidt


Team captain Siya Kolisi arrives in South Africa carrying the Ellis Webb Trophy, from Wikimedia Commons.

On Saturday 2 November the ‘Springboks’, South Africa’s national rugby team, won the world cup in the final game against England. There has been a much-reported twitter storm in response to one of the Springbok players, Faf de Klerk, celebrating in the changing room, wearing only his briefs (bearing the colours of the national flag) and a baseball cap covering his golden locks. A broad British response has been that, especially with Prince Harry present, this was a gesture of unnecessary humiliation directed against England.

A more significant moment that has escaped international public came when, after the cup was presented to team captain Siya Kolisi, another team-member, Mboneni Mbonambi, danced up to him and they shared a few steps. What may have appeared to be a spontaneous outburst of energetic joy for just a few seconds actually signified a sense of identity for the South African nation, and resonates with their previous world cup win in 1995, a year after the country finally overcame apartheid and white minority rule.

The two players, for just a few seconds, toyi-toyied. Toyi-toying originated with Zimbabwean liberation fighters as a form of training, by rhythmically and energetically changing from one leg to the other, either on the spot or slowly moving forward, usually with the knees high up, the arms raised, and accompanied by a chant. During South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, toyi-toying was adopted at demonstrations from the 1970s onwards. The effect on the South African security forces and international media was tremendous, because it showed an energetic and united front of men, women, and children, moving loudly and in unison.

The toyi-toyi is still used today at political demonstrations, but also more generally as an expression of black identity. This has been adopted into popular culture, with London-based rapper Stormzy notably struggling to keep his low-hanging trousers up as he tried to toyi-toyi and sing when he headlined Glastonbury this summer.

The world witnessed a very well-choreographed performance when the Springboks celebrated their victory and the cup was presented to them, with the team jumping up and down, chanting joyously. But then there was that moment when two of the black athletes, both born free – born after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 – expressed black resilience and belonging. Nelson Mandela, who became president after the nation’s first democratic elections in 1994, presided over the 1995 world cup (hosted in and won by South Africa), and pronounced his country to be the rainbow nation, consisting of many colours, who together create something truly beautiful.

Since then, post-apartheid South Africa has seen many challenges, including desegregation, criminal violence (especially rape), high unemployment rates, and a ruling party, the African National Congress, that is struggling to maintain its legitimacy as the party of freedom. Hence that liberation gesture, the toyi-toyi, still carries great significance for the nation today, with this expression of black identity by those born free, but still fighting for social and political justice.

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