3 Sep 2015

Legal bid to stop Springboks playing at World Cup dropped

6:31 pm on 3 September 2015

A legal attempt to stop the Springboks playing in the Rugby World Cup in a dispute over a lack of black players in the squad has been dropped.

More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa's fraught race relations have been highlighted by anger over just nine black players being named in the 31-man squad for the tournament in England.

A little-known group, the Agency for a New Agenda (ANA), brought the urgent court application to try to prevent the side flying out to the World Cup, which starts on September 18th.

The case, which was never thought likely to succeed, cited Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula and the country's rugby union SARU as respondents.

After a day of legal negotiations, Judge Ntendeya Mavundla said the ANA had agreed to drop its application for the Springbok players to be forced to surrender their passports.

"In terms of the... players who are supposed to go abroad, my understanding is that action is no longer sought," Mavundla said at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa's administrative capital.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has been criticised over the racial make up of his World Cup squad.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has been criticised over the racial make up of his World Cup squad. Photo: Photosport

Mavundla nevertheless criticised the country's slow pace of racial reform since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

"It cannot be that, 21 years down the line, transformation is at a snail's pace in all sectors," he added.

He committed the court to investigating the matter further, declaring it to be an issue of "national interest" for South Africa.

"The only issue outstanding is they want a judicial inquiry to be appointed," said Riaan Grundlingh, counsel for SARU.

"Obviously I'm happy (about the judge's decision)."

"I've already bought beer for the World Cup, what was I supposed to do with it?" he joked.

A symbolic sport

South Africa's rugby administrators have set a target of 50 percent black players in the national side by 2019, but many critics say the sport has failed to recruit and develop young black players.

"We're not going to wait any longer," ANA president Edward Mokhoanatse told AFP, describing the court proceedings as a "victory".

"This will ensure there is a kind of supervisory role of the courts to ensure there is transformation."

Traditionally a white Afrikaner sport, rugby became a symbol of national reconciliation when president Nelson Mandela donned a Springbok jersey and presented captain Francois Pienaar with the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.

But the racial composition of the Springboks has remained an emotive public issue, with calls for racial quotas raising fears among some fans that the team will be weakened.

Sports Minister Mbalula earlier shrugged off the legal challenge, calling on all South Africans to rally behind the players.

"It's non-negotiable, we must support out national team," he told the eNCA news channel.

"I'm saying to fellow South Africans, black, white, blue and green... we are going to England to conquer and must support our national team."

An Afrikaner party this week lodged a petition with the British High Commission to protest against "political interference in sport in South Africa" -- an apparent reference to what it sees as the inclusion of black players on a racial basis.

-Agence France-Presse