Springbok Rugby allegations: More than meets the eye

Springbok Rugby Allegations
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Springbok rugby allegations of racial disharmony have been fodder for those on social media before the Rugby World Cup in Japan even kicked off.

Ryan Jordan takes a look at two such instances that have enjoyed a lot of airtime recently.

Eben Etzebeth allegations

Eben Etzebeth has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently. Is he guilty of assault and racist slurs?

The allegations against Etzebeth are very serious. In South Africa, racist comments are taken very seriously and there is no easy escape (rightly so) for anybody who uses terminology that belongs in the apartheid era. The claim of assault is also a serious one. Photographs of the claimant paint a picture of a vicious attack.

What do we know?

This part is obvious. Something happened. Who did what is unclear. There is a Whatsapp video doing the rounds that does not provide any conclusive evidence. Etzebeth owns a firearm that has been sent for forensic testing to determine if it was used in the alleged assault.

What has happened since?

A few things have happened that could start conspiracy theories. It is not our role to to give an opinion whether or not Etzebeth is guilty. It certainly is our role to talk about the situation and consider the environment in which this is playing itself out.

The arrival of Buang Jones

Who is Buang Jones? Jones is the Acting Head of Legal Affairs of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). He has also applied for the position of Deputy Public Prosecutor. A man of his standing would be expected to carefully consider the balances of justice and to respect the principal of “innocent until proven guilty”.

Jones’ speech at a community meeting in Langebaan, Cape Town on Thursday 3 October was a clear over-reach of his mandate.

Speaking to members of the Langebaan community on Thursday, Jones charged that Etzebeth was “used to getting away with murder”.

“We have been told this is not the first time Eben has done this,” he said. “He has also managed to get away with it, but this time it stops here.”

What is the SAHRC’s mandate?

Below is an extract from the SAHRC site.

The Legal Services Unit (LSU) is responsible for providing quality legal services for the protection of human rights in South Africa. The LSU endeavours to discharge the protection mandate of the Commission through the efficient and effective investigation of complaints of human rights violations, the provision of quality legal advice and assistance, as well as seeking redress through the courts for victims of human rights violations. The LSU seeks to foster an understanding and respect for human rights by addressing human rights violations or threats of a violation, which includes making appropriate findings and recommendations to stakeholders.

Nothing in the above states that the SAHRC should be making decisions of guilt on behalf of the judiciary. There is no record of any finding either. What is Jones’ agenda here if it is not trying to feather his nest to get the Deputy Public Prosecutor job?

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What if Jones is wrong?

Let us hypothesize for a moment. What if…. Etzebeth is proven innocent? Would Jones withdraw his application for the DPP job as he would surely be the wrong man after his declaration of Etzebeth’s guilt prior to the case being heard? His duty is to support the aggrieved party and deliver the evidence to the court, not to try the accused.

Criticism from within SAHRC

Jones’ comments have not been supported with two SAHRC Commissioners, Chris Nissen and Andre Guam. Nissen regarded Jones’ comments as “inappropriate” and Guam, who stated that “the matter was a factual dispute, which means the court would have to decide whether Etzebeth was guilty.

No response from Jones

We attempted to contact Mr Jones on Wednesday October 2nd, but he has not responded to our request for comment. Our questions related to the possibility of new evidence being presented as well as the timing of a community meeting before a firm case had been established and presented to the Equality Court.

The facts of the matter should be aired in court and be evaluated by the judiciary. If there is a case to be heard, it should be progressed.

The Bomb Squad

The second type of incident is a broader issue of social media being used to either pursue a divisive narrative or to spread simply untrue interpretations of events. The latest one is the “Bomb Squad” incident after the Springboks vs Italy game at the Rugby World Cup. As an observer not close to the game or the team culture, what unfolded on the field was shocking at face value. A single black player excluded from celebrating a victory by a group of white players. But is it that simple and would the players be that stupid?

So what is the Bomb Squad?

Unlike the rest of the rugby world, this Springbok team does not call their replacements “finishers” or “substitutes”. Their replacements are called the Bomb Squad, who have a specific role in either saving a game when behind on the scoreboard, or closing out the game to win. One of the new traditions in this squad is that the Bomb Squad search each other out after the final whistle after a victory to celebrate their special role. They then move on to celebrate with the rest of the team.

Makazole Mapimpi was a starting player during that game and was not part of the Bomb Squad and moved away to respect to this fairly new and admittedly idiosyncratic tradition.

Is Mapimpi a sell-out?

Mapimpi has been accused of brushing this under the carpet in order to protect his “employment”. He released the video below to explain that this was not the case. Apologies to those who cannot speak Xhosa, but some of the English phrases show that he is unhappy with the comments doing the rounds and confirming the existence of the Bomb Squad.

Could he be lying?

Social media has been particularly cruel on this, refusing to believe those who were actually involved, insisting that there was a cover up. If those calling out racism and hiding the real facts, it would be easy enough to prove. If the Bomb Squad was a hastily arranged story to get the team out of trouble, it would obviously have not existed before the game on Friday.

The below screen grab off Springbok prop Trevor Nyakane’s Instagram account (best viewed in a new tab) does not support that narrative. It is dated 27 July 2019 and references the Bomb Squad. This is two and a half months before Friday’s perceived incident. The men in picture, Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi and Tendai Mtawarira are black rugby players who played off the bench for the Springboks. This destroys the narrative that Bomb Squad did not exist and is a excuse to cover up the actions of a group of white Springbok players.

The sad reality

Comments being thrown around by all “interested” parties from both the left and the right have been sad to see. The narrative is negative, accusatory and divisive. The bright, inclusive future that South African sports fans thought they would enjoy together after the Springboks victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup and 1996 Africa Cup of Nations victory by Bafana Bafana is gone. For many, that T-shirt is faded and lying forgotten at the back of a cupboard for many South Africans.

This issue is not about sporting teams or codes, but is rather an issue of national concern that the South Africa government appears to be clueless on how to address.

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