This article was first published on September 16, 2015. It was republished on April 24, 2018, as a tribute to mark Bryan Habana’s retirement from rugby.
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Green marbles are the focus of the three children’s eyes as they flick them along the incline of a rugby pitch in the heart of the Masiphumelele Township which lies 38 kilometres north of South Africa’s Cape Point. The innocence of the black six-year-olds contrasts with the crime-riddled roads which lie behind the chain-link fence which separates the corrugated iron houses from the pristine green turf.
The kids are disinterested in what is going on next to them. The pitch itself is split into four quadrants. Each has a South African rugby international aiding a coach in putting their group of children through rugby drills all linked with life lessons. One focuses around teamwork, another around punctuality — it is part of the South African Rugby Legends’ Vuka project, a programme which focuses on taking rugby to disadvantaged areas.
Then comes the distraction: Bryan Habana walks out with that distinctive grin, clutching his bright orange boots under his arm. “He’s our David Beckham,” smiles Morne du Plessis, team manager of the 1995 Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks and now a patron of Laureus.
Suddenly the play stops on the four quadrants, the marbles are forgotten and all of the children flock to the gravitational pull of the new addition to the training session. The children just want to touch the 32-year-old in his distinctive green and gold tracksuit of the South African international rugby team, the Springboks; even photographs are an afterthought once they have had a chance to grasp their hero.
Habana is a symbol of hope, an electric winger who starred in their 2007 World Cup triumph. Of the five South Africans to break the 100-cap mark, he is the only black player to have done so.
It was the 1995 Rugby World Cup that changed Habana’s focus in life, an experience that shifted his attention from other sports — Bryan Gary Habana is named after Manchester United’s Bryan Robson and Gary Bailey — and ignited his love for rugby.
“1995 was a massive turning point in my life,” Habana says. “I grew up in a fairly new South Africa.”
It is a South Africa that 20 years on is still wrestling with its own sense of nationhood. It is still struggling even to understand who should be wearing the Springboks jersey. Transformation remains a buzzword; quotas remain a source of ire. Yet Bryan Habana, perhaps the most famous black South African rugby player ever and certainly the most electrifying, is the shining light even when there are some who still believe South African rugby is a game preserved for the white man.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup is still South Africa’s finest sporting moment — even this soccer-mad nation hosting FIFA’s World Cup in 2010 cannot eclipse it. It was when Habana’s sporting destiny was turned on its head.
“1995 was the first time I was ever taken out of school and we went on a road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town,” the muscular winger tells ESPN. “I had never really experienced the game — rugby was something you heard about and perhaps had seen. We picked up a couple of hitchhikers, and as a 12-year-old boy it was a whole new world. I was trying to embrace a sport that was common but was uncommon for me. I grew up going to private schools and soccer played a massive part in my early life.
“We went down to Newlands for the game versus Australia [the opening game of the tournament, with South Africa beating the reigning champions 27-18] and we walked along the railway track. I wanted to get my face painted and it happened in a church bathroom — it was of the new South African flag. I had never been to a full-capacity Springbok Test match before, and it being a World Cup amplified it tenfold. All of a sudden I could understand these grown men jumping for joy. Something started to boil inside me … it was awesome. After the game I took my flight home, alone as an unaccompanied minor.”
Such scenes were unimaginable five years earlier, as South Africa attempted to prise itself out of the grip of apartheid. Some feared that the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 would trigger a bloody retribution from the black majority for the years of oppression. A walk around Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum shows vivid footage of the violence that threatened to boil over into a civil racial war but Mandela achieved the unthinkable of appealing to different creeds, races and perspectives in a divided country.
The Springboks themselves were only permitted to return to international rugby in 1992, having been forced into exile by the international boycott against apartheid. The team’s first return to the Test arena saw them outclassed and outmanoeuvred by the all-conquering All Blacks of New Zealand, but a year on from the country’s first democratic post-isolation election in 1994, with Mandela elected president, and South Africa were hosting rugby’s third-ever World Cup.
From an opening victory over Australia, South Africa marched towards the 1995 final and a meeting with the All Blacks. This presented a problem, politically. Those oppressed by apartheid identified with the All Blacks, a multiracial team, instead of supporting the Springboks, a white-dominated team built on power and perceived to be a portrayal of Afrikaner strength.
But in a political masterstroke, Mandela took to the field wearing the green and gold South Africa shirt. In the blink of an eye he had married the two dividing factions in South Africa.
In the stands again for the final was Habana. “The seats were sold out so it was all crazy; we sat on the stairs and people were embracing this new-found love, not only for the Boks but also for South Africa,” he says. “For that moment in time, South Africans were oblivious to apartheid. We just celebrated being unified by the common goal, though there was still a lot to get right.”
There was no bloodshed off the field; black and white supporters came together, content, and with the most wonderful nature of predestination Mandela handed the South Africa captain — the blond Afrikaner Francois Pienaar — the Webb Ellis Cup to mark their 15-12 victory. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation” in wonderful Technicolor.
In the stands, a starry-eyed Habana wore a T-shirt with his face in the middle and “I’m the Bokke’s Greatest Supporter” written alongside it. Autographs from both the Springboks and the All Blacks sides border his smiling face. “I got the Springboks’ autographs when Dad took us along to their training session. The All Blacks’ set we got by going to the hotel they were staying at in Sandton and waiting there patiently the whole day to get as many as possible.” They were his heroes.
“That inspired me to perhaps one day be the same. I said ‘Dad, I want to play this game’.”
“My first-ever game was at King Edward VII School and I had trials and couldn’t pass off my left hand,” says Habana, a broad smile breaking out across his face. “I was one of the quickest but also tiny so I started at scrum-half and I was in the under-14 G side. That whole journey of going from the bottom up was hard — I never made the South Africa Schools or under-19 sides. It was a dream.”
“From a young age, I didn’t want to be seen as a flash-in-the-pan Springbok; I wanted to be seen as one of the greats.”
The 2007 Rugby World Cup was when Habana secured his place in that pantheon of greatness. It was the year of Habana, a time which saw South Africa lift their second World Cup and Habana named World Player of the Year having finished that tournament as top try scorer. When Habana says now that “I wanted to do something that no other Springbok had ever done,” it is unlikely he ever imagined what that would become: his eye-popping speed saw him pitched in a race against a cheetah and then later an Airbus A380.
Habana had taken on the mantle from his heroes of 1995 and become the new focal point for hope for South Africa. Now in 2015 it is still a team which divides opinion with some deeming it to not be racially representative of the country but the players, they try and keep it as much about sport as possible. “As a professional you want the best XV out there but being a player of colour I understand that certain things have to be adhered to in our country due to the previous administrations.
“Hopefully I’ve broken down preconceptions. I haven’t come from a disadvantage, I went to the best schools and got supported by a wonderful family and my father pushed me to the goals I wanted to achieve so there was never a stage of my life where I wasn’t provided for.
“I’m not sure how those from disadvantaged backgrounds see me. Do they see me as someone who has hopefully overcome boundaries despite my privileged background? I was the first player of colour to play 100 Tests for my country and I don’t think that just happens.
“I saw in 2007 how black kids in the township would run for three or four kilometres behind the team bus to get a glimpse of the trophy. Politics and socioeconomical things aside, sport has given this country a lot but we need to use it as a greater catalyst. As Springboks, we are a symbol of hope to the country. If you win, the world seems better for a day or two. That’s a massive responsibility.”
Habana will take up his now-familiar position on the left wing in Brighton for South Africa’s opening Rugby World Cup match against Japan on Sept. 19. Only he will know whether he will pause for a moment to take stock of the remarkable journey he has been on. It has been a path that has taken him from Johannesburg to global stardom and his current club Toulon in France.
He will be one of a number of Springboks in that starting XV who play their rugby away from South Africa. Habana’s success has continued in France as he helped guide the Galacticos to the Champions Cup — the premier competition in European club rugby — last term, but there is still an element of introspection about the man. It’s never straightforward being a Springbok.
“I don’t think I’m a superstar yet. Once I’ve finished the game and have seen what I’ve achieved I can assess. I still have huge aspirations over the next year or two.
“Political situations may have made it easier for me to stay in the team but I don’t think that’s why I have played that many games. Rugby has been the biggest unifying factor this country has seen in the last 20 years. There will always be people who want more but as players, the best we can do is go out there and play winning rugby which gives hope back to the nation.”