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In South Africa winning, not color, matters

  • Story Highlights
  • In South Africa, rugby union was once symbolic of white domination
  • South African rugby team now features seven black players -- the most ever
  • Peter de Villiers is South Africa's first black coach
  • Rugby fans say they care more about winning than color of players' skins
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By CNN's Robyn Curnow
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BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (CNN) -- Three hours before the game, the car park outside the rugby stadium in Bloemfontein, seems to be filled with more "braais" (barbecues) than cars.

Black players such as Bryan Habana typify the new multiracial Springboks.

Black players such as Bryan Habana typify the new multiracial Springboks.

It is a typical, even iconic, white South African scene. At first glance, off the field, it might appear that nothing has changed in South African rugby -- the sport that came to symbolize white domination -- since the days of Apartheid.

Most of the spectators are white, Afrikaans and guzzling brandy and coke. On their "braais," they are cooking the local favorite "boerewors" -- a distinctive local farmer's sausage.

But appearances can be deceiving. On the field, history is being made. South African rugby has changed. And the game's most ardent fans -- in the heart of Afrikaner country -- don't seem to mind.

Facing Wales, South Africa's rugby team -- the reigning world champions -- took to the field with a new black coach, Peter de Villiers, and seven black players out of a team of 15 --- the most black players ever.

Fourteen years after democracy, it seems South Africa's messy post-Apartheid race relations are slowly being worked out on the sports field.

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"This is a new era. It changes the face of rugby. Historically and politically it's always seen as a white preserve. But the appointment of Peter de Villiers is a huge change in terms of mind set," South African rugby president Oregan Hoskins told CNN. Is South African sport doing enough to tackle the legacy of Apartheid? Have your say

The man at the heart of this rugby revolution is easy to miss. Amid the thick necks and even thicker thighs of a Springbok training session, de Villiers is the short, slight man who seems to have perfected the art of disappearing into the crowd.

Playing against Prejudice
They face hostility both on and off the field. It's not about their performance - but rather the color of their skin. Join us for a CNN special that examines the difficult issues of race and prejudice that still linger in international sport.
Sat. June 21: 0630, 1430, 1930, Sun. June 22: 0630 (all times GMT)

In fact, the largest thing about him is his bushy moustache. It took us months to pin him down for an interview and he already has a reputation for dodging the media. I couldn't figure out if he was nervous or just deeply suspicious of the press.

But when I met him, I realized he doesn't really care what people read or write about him. He's deeply religious. The whole interview is peppered with references to God or the Bible and he makes a point of saying that his life is certainly not going to be defined by him being the Springbok coach.

That said, he admits that "since my childhood I've wanted to be a Springbok. To be a part of the set-up. But politics didn't allow us." He says he was a good player -- but as a colored man he was barred from the white rugby set-up.

In fact, during Apartheid, black and whites were not allowed to play sport together or against each other. The races were separated in all spheres of life. Fourteen years since those days, has the sport managed to transform itself from white domination to a multi-racial institution?

Yes, say the fans. White, Afrikaans and by now tanked up with brandy and coke, we could not find one person who resented the new black Springboks.

One group of burly men who were braai-ing Springbok meat on kebabs, told us: "It is our team, we have to support them -- Don't think it bothers anyone as long as we can see them win."

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And that's probably the point. South Africans are a competitive hard-nosed bunch; they hate to see their side lose. So as long as the world champions are winning, the supporters will love them -- white or black.

To complicate matters further, three of the Springbok's black players are Zimbabweans. Not South Africans. But nobody seems to mind the "foreigners" either.

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