In South Africa, children in Soweto show that rugby is not just for whites

More and more township youths are dreaming of walking in the footsteps of Siya Kolisi, the first black captain of the Springboks, to face England in the World Cup final.

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Students from Soweto Rugby School Academy, Johannesburg suburbs, October 31, 2019. Jerome Delay / AP

That day, they do not have class. They are in school, sitting on the floor, in the middle of a bare classroom with brick walls. The leader of the dance is Tanya Tshabalala and wears, under her gray sweatshirt, a jersey of the Springboks, the South African rugby team, which is playing the World Cup final on Saturday, November 2nd. England. Tanya is not really a teacher, but the forty-one 13-year-olds who face her listen to him religiously for this sequence called "Rugby and Democracy". "In rugby, do all blacks have their chances? There are fifteen players in our team. Twelve are white, four black. Is this the most democratic situation? " She asks.

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We are on the heights of Soweto, the largest township in South Africa, in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Here, there are three rugby teams for 1.3 million inhabitants at least (2011 census). Among them, the Soweto Rugby School Academy, the only one that offers tutoring classes for children in parallel with training. In addition to providing tutorials in history and English, Tanya is one of six coaches on the team. "I always associate what I teach them to what they love most: rugby. " And it works: with each question, a swarm of arms rise to speak. So that day, she took the opportunity to raise awareness of the lack of diversity in South African rugby.

A long, one-colored team

Seeing a class of black children pawing with impatience until the start of their rugby training is not usual in South Africa. To take the measure, we must hear Tanya conclude the lesson of the day: "Remember, there is no sport for whites. We can always catch a rugby ball, go on a field and have fun, even if our community does not understand that it is a sport open to all. Previous generations are still stuck in the past. "

Soweto is not a rugby land. Here, as in most townships, it would be rather round ball. "For a long time, rugby was played only by whites in South Africa. We grew up in the idea that the only sport played by blacks is football. It is to change this mentality that we created the school »says Chris Litau. This semi-professional player opened Soweto Rugby School Academy in 2016. Three years later, she welcomes 250 children aged 8 to 18, including about 50 girls. And Chris's dream is that one of them wears the Springbok jersey one day.

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For a long time, the national rugby team remained single-handed. In 1995, after the end of apartheid, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the Springboks crossed the World Cup with the slogan: "One team, one country" (a team, a country). But when celebrating the victory, and despite the craze of the whole country, only a black player raises the trophy: Chester Williams, raised to the rank of national icon. And since ? Chester Williams is dead and another icon has taken over. Nearly twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, Siya Kolisi became the first black captain of the team, in 2018. He is the one who takes the Boks in the final against England after an impeccable performance throughout the World Cup.

"At home, we only look at football"

Like Soweto's kids, Siya Kolisi grew up in a township. In their eyes, he is a hero: "He's a great captain and he's going to lead the Springboks to victory. I want to be a leader like him! " explains Boitumelo, bright-eyed, at the height of his 12 years. Beside him, Nthabiseng, 17, confirms: "It made many young people want to go rugby, especially the little ones. " The girl joined the team at its creation, three years ago, under the leadership of Chris Litau, visiting his school. She is the only one to play rugby in the family and confesses that at home, "We only look at football".

Like Soweto's kids, too, Siya Kolisi has too often played on an empty stomach. That morning, at Soweto Rugby School Academy, to the question "Have you eaten before coming? "only one of the children interviewed will answer yes. "I save money to buy a breakfast", he says. Beside him, his friends swallow sandwiches brought by Chris after the training. Earlier, they played barefoot rugby, schoolboy shoes or socks with holes. It is certainly common to see young white children playing rugby without shoes in South Africa. "It happens, it's true, concedes Chris Litau. But ours are like that because they can not afford to do otherwise. "


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