In about three weeks time the South African Springbucks will be coming to Edinburgh to play Scotland in a rugby tournament at Murrayfield stadium. I have already begun to see friends from South Africa sporting those gold and green colours, made recognizable to even an ignorant sports fan (like myself) thanks to Clint Eastwood’s recent film Invictus. Invictus tells the true tale of South Africa’s victory at the first World Cup they were allowed admittance to since the fall of Apartheid, but more than that it is a very symbolic depiction of Nelson Mandela slowly making the idea and hope for the rainbow nation a reality simply by allowing the newly unified rugby team to keep their ‘apartheid’ colors: gold and green.
Now, while Eriksen makes great use and mention of the loaded symbolisms and meanings behind state flags, I believe the same significance can be attached to any object that carries the same sense of exclusive ‘us’, which in the case of the example above would be the gold and green rugby uniform, formally only worn by Afrikaners. Like the rugby uniforms, representative of a national team, Eriksen states, ‘the flag must be as empty a vessel as possible; it ought to be possible to fill it with many things. If it is associated with particular regional, political, religious or ethnic interests in a diverse country, it is bound be divisive.’ (Source: Ericksen, in ‘Flag, nation and symbolism in Europe and America, p.3) At the time of this World Cup in 1995, the newly elected Nelson Mandela, made a very deliberate decision to keep the Springbuck uniform the same, despite the urging of his party, the ANC, to change it completely due to the strong ethnic (and in this case very racial) connotations connected with the gold and green colours and springbuck logo. This was a uniform far from being an ‘empty vessel’ and was very much divisive with the vast majority of black and coloured South Africans, seeing in the Springbuck uniform everything that had been Apartheid, or as Eriksen might delineate: ‘them’.
One particular scene at the beginning of Eastwood’s film shows a mission organization distributing used clothing to black children; one child was given a Springbuck uniform, to which he dramatically rejects and leaves behind with the missionaries. This was very possibly dramatic for Hollywood’s sake, but I think it was probably a fair depiction of the racial climate at that time, as well as an accurate reflection of how most black and coloured South Africans would have viewed the symbolic nature of that specific article of clothing.
Yet despite these divisive attitudes, Mr. Mandela opted to try and make the uniform ‘empty’ and ‘fill it’ with many new things, which he seemed able to partially accomplish by presenting the William Webb Ellis Trophy to the Springbuck captain, Francois Pienaar, while wearing very pointedly a Springbuck jersey and cap after the team won this World Cup in 1995.
Dan Qeqe, a black veteran sports campaigner, was reported as saying after this win that “I never had the chance to test myself against the white rugby greats, but today we play together, and the Springboks play for all of us.”(Source: The Independent, 2008) While there has been occasional debate even more recently about changing the Springbuck uniform, it has since 1995 come to be truly representative of the rainbow nation, having lost most, if not all, of its former racial stigma and acting instead as that empty vessel, sharing in an identity that is more than just its colour scheme.