This is the story of a brand which has matured over the past 100 years into a global superbrand and an example of the power of branding regardless of time, politics, race or culture. It helped heal the wounds after a bitter war over a century ago and caused national sportsmen to rebel against their own governments and later united a nation after apartheid was dismantled and, as a result, yielded what is widely viewed as one of the 100 Greatest Sporting Moments in history. Today, after repeated onslaughts by politicians with racial quota systems and unsuccessful threats to change its name, the brand has emerged stronger than ever, and stands proudly for winners and the ultimate respect a sporting side could earn: world champions.
The origins of the Springbok name and brandmark
The South Africa national rugby union team, commonly referred to as the Springboks or Boks for short in English, Springbokke or Bokke for short in Afrikaans and Amabokoboko in Zulu, has won the Rugby World Cup twice (1995 and 2007) and is currently ranked number one in the International Rugby Board (IRB) World Rankings.
The Springboks play in green and gold jerseys, and officially their emblems are the Springbok, a South African antelope which is also South Africa’s national animal, and the king protea, South Africa’s national flower. The Springbok (Afrikaans and Dutch: spring = jump; bok = antelope or goat) is a medium-sized brown and white gazelle standing about 75 cm high. They can reach running speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour. The Latin name marsupialis derives from a pocket-like skin flap extending along the middle of the back from the tail onwards.
When the male springbok shows off his strength and fitness to attract a mate, or to ward off predators, he starts off in a stiff-legged trot, leaping with an arched back into the air (up to nearly three metres) every few paces, and lifting the flap along his back. That makes the long white hairs under the tail stand up in a conspicuous fan shape. This ritual is known as pronking in Afrikaans or «strutting», meaning to boast or show off.
Springbok inhabit the dry inland areas of south and south-western Africa. They used to be very common, forming some of the largest herds of mammals ever witnessed, when millions of migrating Springbok formed herds hundreds of kilometres long. Extensive hunting and farm fences, which blocked their migratory routes have significantly diminished their numbers. Springbok get their water needs from the food they eat, and can survive without drinking water through dry seasons or even dry years.
The springbok was a national symbol of South Africa under white minority rule (including the period prior to the establishment of apartheid) and appeared on the emblem of the South African Air Force, the brandmark of South African Airways (for which it remains their radio call sign) and the coat of arms of South Africa. These have since been replaced by new designs.
Historically, the term Springbok was given to any team or individual representing South Africa in any international sporting competitions. The Springbok emblem was dropped in favour of the king protea when South Africa’s first democratic government came into power in 1994. However, the rugby union team kept the name and brandmark of the Springbok after the intervention of the then President, Nelson Mandela, who did so as a gesture of goodwill to the mainly white and largely Afrikaner rugby supporters. The South African cricket side is now commonly referred to as the Proteas.
The Springboks have played international rugby since 1891 when a British Isles side toured South Africa. At that time, the South African rugby team had worn myrtle green shirts, which the then captain borrowed from his Old Diocesan club. Rugby was so popular that in 1902 there was a temporary ceasefire in the Anglo-Boer War so that a game could be played between the British and Boer forces. The Anglo-Boer War was waged from 1899 until 1902 between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics of the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State. The game had spread among the Afrikaner population through prisoner-of-war games during the Anglo-Boer War.
The Springbok name and brandmark also date from the 1906-1907 tour of Britain, a trip which helped heal wounds after the Anglo-Boer War and instilled a sense of national pride among South Africans. To prevent the British press from inventing their own name for the South African rugby side, the team captain chose the Springbok to represent his side. After this, the emblem was worn on the left breast pocket of team blazers.
The 1976 Soweto riots and rebel tours
By the Second World War, New Zealand and South Africa had established themselves as rugby’s two greatest teams. In 1976, the All Blacks tour – shortly after the Soweto riots – attracted international condemnation and 28 countries boycotted the 1976 Summer Olympics in protest. The next year, the Commonwealth of Nations signed the Gleneagles Agreement that discouraged any sporting contact with South Africa. Due to growing international pressure, the segregated South African rugby unions merged in 1977.
In 1986, a rebel tour took place, in response to the scrapping of the planned All Black tour of South Africa after an interdict by the New Zealand High Court in 1985. The team was called the Cavaliers (but advertised in South Africa as the All Blacks) was not sanctioned by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, but consisted of all but two of the original squad selected.
In 1989, a World XV sanctioned by the International Rugby Board went on a mini-tour of South Africa. All the traditional rugby nations, bar New Zealand, supplied players to the team, which consisted of 10 Welshmen, eight Frenchmen, six Australians, four Englishmen, one Scot and one Irishman.
Although South Africa was instrumental in creating the Rugby World Cup competition, the Springboks did not compete in the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991 because of the anti-apartheid sporting boycotts of South Africa. From 1990 to 1991, the legal apparatus of apartheid was dismantled and the Springboks were readmitted to international rugby in 1992.
One of the 100 Greatest Sporting Moments
The team made its World Cup debut in 1995, when the newly democratic South Africa hosted the tournament and there was a remarkable surge of support for the Springboks among the white and black communities in the lead-up to the tournament. This was the first major event to be held in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu had dubbed «the Rainbow Nation», with South Africans uniting behind the «one team, one country» slogan. The Springboks defeated the All Blacks in the final, which is now remembered as an iconic moment in the history of the sport, and a watershed moment in the post-apartheid nation-building process.
Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok rugby jersey and baseball cap, presented the World Cup to the South African captain, Francois Pienaar, a white Afrikaner, to the joy of the capacity crowd. The moment is thought by some to be one of the most famous finals of any sport and was listed as one of the 100 Greatest Sporting Moments on a British television programme. The gesture was widely seen as a major step towards the reconciliation of white and black South Africans. Notably, the day after the World Cup victory, the Zulu word for Springbok, Amabokoboko, appeared as the headline of the Sowetan‘s sports page.
A series of crises followed from 1995 to 1997, with allegations by politicians that South African rugby was an unreformed element of the new Rainbow Nation. In July 2006, Springbok coach Jake White told the press he had been unable to pick some white players for his squad «because of transformation» – a reference to the ANC government’s policies of attempting to redress the racial imbalances in national sport.
The Springboks won the World Cup for a second time in 2007 and joined Australia as the only other national team to have won the trophy twice. This also proved the southern hemisphere’s dominance, with five out of six titles to date.
South Africa’s World Cup-winning side of 1995 fielded only one non-white player. This trend continued in the team’s biggest matches of the 1999 and 2003 World Cups and, in the 2007 World Cup final, the team fielded only two non-white players. Despite a quota system intended to encourage provincial teams to field non-white players, and the fact that there are more non-white than white rugby players in South Africa, many politicians believed that the pace of transformation was too slow. South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins thought there were too few non-white players in the 2007 World Cup squad and, in 2008, the first non-white coach was appointed. The political pressure on rugby coaches and administrators to select non-white players has been strong and, as a result, 16 of the 35 new Springboks appointed by former coach Jake White were non-white.
Politicians will always loose the battle with the brand
In late 2008, the Springbok brand again came under fire from politicians. The parliamentary sports committee of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) made some radical comments and demanded that the Springbok emblem and name be dropped in favour of the king protea. This sparked an outcry from supporters of the national rugby team, which is a source of deep pride, especially to Afrikaners. Some people argue that racial barriers were broken in 1995 after South Africa’s victory, when former president Nelson Mandela lifted the World Cup trophy while wearing a Springbok jersey, but the committee remarked that Mandela’s action was a matter of convenience rather than conviction.
No doubt, this latest debate has had a lot to do with the recent ANC split and with the resultant newly formed Congress of the People (COPE) party emerging as the latest opposition in the elections held in South Africa in April 2009. COPE was founded by former ANC members after the ANC’s national conference in 2007 resulted in the election of Jacob Zuma over Thabo Mbeki, the then South African President, as the ANC president.
The split also revealed underlying ethnic tensions between Zulu and Xhosa speakers, represented by Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, respectively, and their different philosophies. Mbeki pursued neoliberal economic policies and Zuma, who would become the future President of South Africa, was more left-wing and populist and has a closer relationship with the popular Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.
While we are on the subject of politics and name changes, why was South Africa not renamed Azania after the 1994 elections? Azania was at the time the name of choice among revolutionary black African nationalists, and it appeared in the names of revolutionary groups such as the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania and the Socialist Party of Azania. The truth is that the ANC had always been opposed to this name because of its association with the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, which had split from the ANC.
And why was the poorly performing Bafana Bafana (the Boys), South Africa’s official national soccer team, not renamed the Proteas? It was rumoured that England coach Sven-Göran Eriksson had been offered US$3-million (ZAR30-million) to coach Bafana Bafana for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Instead, the former Brazil coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, landed the contract for US$10-million (ZAR100-million) but resigned in April 2008 for «family reasons».
The latest Springbok debacle is a case of some ignorant and very confused politicians trying to score brownie points at the expense of South Africa and a global brand born more than a century ago. Apartheid officially died in 1994 and if the Springbok brand was seen as part of that era, it would have been scrapped then. How can it still be offensive 15 years later? Proof of the brand’s popularity among black South Africans is that more Springbok apparel and memorabilia are sold in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest black township, than in the predominantly white suburbs of Johannesburg.
Silas Nkanunu, former SARU president and one of the first blacks to be appointed to this position, stated in an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) in December 2008 that he believed changing the Springbok brand would not address the real issues affecting the sport’s development and its promotion among blacks. «The move smacks of political power play. Black clubs are in dire need of financial assistance, which is slowing the development of talent,» said Nkanunu.
The truth is that the Springbok brand has become a superbrand in the global sport world, is untouchable and has transcended politics and the politicians. It earns millions of dollars in sponsorship deals and, fortunately, it does not legally belong to the South African government but to the SA Rugby Union (SARU), previously known as the SA Rugby Football Union (SARFU), which registered the trademark in 1996. The global audience does not view the Springbok brand as a political symbol but as a great sport icon, one that epitomises world champions and an undeniable national passion for rugby.
Moreover, the rough and tumble game of rugby is difficult to associate with a feminine floral symbol such as the protea, and the symbol of a flower would be incongruent with the brand. Next, the politicians may want to change the jerseys to a powder pink to match the colour of the king protea. Wait, I am wrong! The current colours for the Springboks, Bafana Bafana and the Proteas are green and golden yellow, which, it just so happens, are the colours of the ruling ANC party.
Politicians who have racial hang-ups should rather stay out of sport. Their involvement in a quota system has proved disastrous as is clear from the pathetic performance of South African athletes at the Beijing Olympics. After all, sport is about who is the best and wins. It is not about a quota system or who is the blackest or whitest. It takes a long time to train and coach great sportsmen and sportswomen and is not a political event like the typical unfair (s)election so common in Africa.
Today, South Africa plays in green jerseys with a gold collar, white shorts and green socks. Their jersey is embroidered with the SA Rugby brandmark and the flag of South Africa on the sleeve. In December 2008, the South African Rugby Union chose to go the dreaded co-branding route and to place the Protea on the left side of the Springboks’ jersey, in line with other South African national teams, and move the Springbok brandmark to the right of the jersey. The new jersey was worn for the first time during the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in June and July 2009. The funny thing is, nobody noticed the new blossom and the Springboks were even more popular than ever, especially after their series victory over the Lions.
Politicians should take note that it does not matter if the jersey has an intricate step-and-repeat-pattern all over it, containing thousands of proteas. The South African national rugby union team will always be referred to as the Springboks because the brand will always be stronger than the politicians, regardless of all their politicking.