Pretoria: The World Cup-winning Springboks began a four-day homecoming tour in Pretoria on Thursday, with President Cyril Ramaphosa hailing the team for uniting a country with a divisive past.
South Africa edged arch-rivals New Zealand 12-11 to achieve a record fourth title and their second in a row in a gripping final last Saturday in Paris.
With gold medals hanging from their necks, the players arrived at the Union Buildings, the seat of the government, on a yellow open-top bus and shook hands with Ramaphosa.
“Saturday night, you strode off the pitch of victory and passed into legend,” said Ramaphosa, who this week declared a public holiday on December 15 to celebrate the win.
“In doing so you have lifted the spirits of an entire nation and filled us with pride. You have united the South African people.”
Greeted by thousands
After posing for a photo with the president holding the Webb Ellis Cup, the players hopped back on the bus and began a tour of the capital.
They were greeted by thousands of dancing people who lined the streets to cheer a team that has captured the hearts of a nation but was once reviled as a symbol of apartheid.
“We are very diverse, just like you are outside there and we just wanted to show that diversity is our strength,” said Siya Kolisi, the Springboks’ first black Test captain, who dedicated the trophy to “the people of South Africa”.
The players, all wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the team’s motto “Stronger Together”, waved to the crowd and drank beer as they drove through the streets.
There were a few notable absentees, with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and fan-favourite Faf de Klerk, the team’s blonde-haired scrum half, among those who couldn’t attend the celebrations. But that didn’t dampen the mood.
After Pretoria, the Springboks were welcomed by loud cheers as they arrived in Johannesburg where they made a stop at the headquarters of one of the squad’s main sponsors.
They were later due in Soweto, a township that used to be a hotbed of anti-apartheid activism.
For 90 years Springbok selectors chose only white players, with black and mixed-race athletes sequestered in separate leagues.
That slowly started to change after the advent of democracy in 1994, with Nelson Mandela famously rallying behind the team that won its first World Cup in 1995.
In recent years, Kolisi, 32, has been pivotal in bringing many young, black South Africans closer to the sport.
The latest success brought joy to a nation that is still described by the World Bank as the most unequal in the world and battling unemployment, electricity, water and crime crises.
“The performance of the Springboks ... has reminded us that even amidst our many challenges, there is always room for optimism and hope,” said Ramaphosa.
The Springboks will go to Cape Town on Friday, Durban on Saturday and East London on Sunday.