Nation & World

This is for you, South Africa: Springboks start trophy tour

South African Springbok rugby captain Siya Kolisi with the Web Ellis trophy arrives back on home soil at the O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. South Africa beat England in the Rugby World Cup final Saturday 32-12.
South African Springbok rugby captain Siya Kolisi with the Web Ellis trophy arrives back on home soil at the O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. South Africa beat England in the Rugby World Cup final Saturday 32-12. AP Photo

With captain Siya Kolisi telling ordinary South Africans that the victory and the spoils were for them, the Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks started a five-day tour on Thursday to take the trophy to people in big cities and poor townships.

Kolisi, a product of one of those townships, stood in the morning sunshine at the grand Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of South Africa's government, and said the support of ordinary South Africans was "the most important thing."

"Thank you, South Africa, this is for you," Kolisi said to the celebrating crowd as he pointed to the golden trophy resting on a pedestal nearby and overlooking the capital city.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was present to congratulate the Springboks at the start of their tour, where they will visit cities in the north, south, east, and west. Included on the schedule is a drive past the Soweto home of the late Nelson Mandela, and a visit to another township almost the length of the country away on South Africa's south coast where Kolisi's story began.

Before the Springboks got on their bus, President Ramaphosa hugged Kolisi, held coach Rassie Erasmus' hand, and joked he was glad it wasn't an election year because he would be out of a job.

"If we were about to hold an election, I have no doubt the entire rugby team ... they would have won the election," Ramaphosa said. "And Siya Kolisi would have been the president. And Rassie Erasmus would have been the minister of finance. So, it's good that we don't have an election and I don't have to compete with Siya Kolisi right now."

South Africa beat England in Saturday's final in Japan to clinch a third World Cup title.

The triumph under Kolisi, the Springboks' first black captain, has been hailed as an important morale-booster for South Africa. A quarter of a century after breaking free of apartheid, and 24 years after the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup for the first time in front of then-president Mandela, South Africa's progress is still undermined by significant social problems.

Whether or not this Springboks feat has any tangible effect on solving those issues, it has clearly sparked renewed optimism and unity in a country fractured by racism and violence, and a new democracy still struggling to find its feet.

"I really hope we've inspired everybody by what we do, playing rugby, and we hope this doesn't end here," Kolisi said.

Jubilant crowds lined the streets of Pretoria for the first leg of the tour, including giddy schoolchildren who were allowed out of class to watch the Springboks' bus pass by with the Webb Ellis Cup. By 10 a.m., some people had already lit their braais, or barbeques, on the side of the road, a favorite pastime for all South Africans.

One man told a television news crew: "I'm here to celebrate with my Springboks."

That he was black, wore a green and gold Springboks jersey, and referred to them as his team was a reminder of how far the Springboks have come since they were all white under apartheid and shunned by black South Africans.

Mandela, the new South Africa's beloved leader, started the reform of the Springboks when he decided to embrace the team in 1995. The 2019 Springboks will pay homage to Mandela, who died in 2013 but is always invoked when South Africa marks an important moment, when their bus drives down his old street, Vilakazi Street, in Soweto.

The tour will also recognize the roots of its newest nation builder. This weekend, the Springboks plan to take the World Cup to the people of the Zwide township in the Eastern Cape province. There, Kolisi grew up in tough poverty and struggled at times to find enough to eat. But it's also where he learned to play rugby.

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