A Rugby Game in Stellenbosch


A bullish white South African charged out of the doors of the bus and tackled a friend into a flowerbed. The victim mooned the crowd. Students poured off of the bus and on to the street. Some had water guns, which they squirted into the passenger and driver seats of whoever happened to drive by. The especially unlucky had their trunks spanked with bamboo. Meanwhile, an American in a pink dress crouched in a boozy, unsteady squat behind a bush that half-sheltered her very public urination. We had just arrived in Stellenbosch, South Africa for an intervarsity rugby game between Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town, where I am spending a semester abroad. The bus ride over had departed an hour later than promised, which meant, by South African standards, it was on time. The Americans had been the first to arrive at the bus pickup on campus, punctual and sober. Half an hour later, South African students donning white construction outfits decorated, cast-like, with signatures, slogans, and profanities in blue paint marched loudly to the bus. Each carried his or her own two-liter of alcoholic cream soda. There were not enough seats on the bus. The loudest and largest rugby fans took to the bus aisle, thumping the roof to emphasize their chants. College rugby cheers take their cue from wherever convenient — Australian war songs from the First World War (“Waltzing Matilda”), misogynous fantasy (“Get on the bed and give me head!”), conventional school cheers (“ahhU, ahhhU, ahhhUCT!”), and even from health crises (“Tugwell [an all-female dorm] girls have HIV, doo-ahhh, do-ahhh!”). The chants and chaos stumbled into the stadium, a brute structure that made no effort to compete with the view (the vineyard that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Blood Diamonds visits is nearby).  By halftime, the cream soda was running out and the carnival had become increasingly sloppy.  Several fans ripped their seats out from their bearings. A shirtless, mulleted “bru” (the South African “bro”) — a UCT campus celebrity of sorts — heard our accents. “Say hi to Marissa from the OC,” he said. “OMG, OMG!”  He was instantly distracted by a girl with a shaved head. “You are so fucking feminist,” he yelled. An imperfect analogy might claim that Stellenbosch plays Vanderbilt to University of Cape Town’s NYU, although these episodes show that there is lots of overlap. Stellenbosch seems strangely lost in an apartheid utopia, a college town purged of blacks and other undesirables and left as the Napa Valley of Africa, minus the granola-munchers. Stellenbosch University is the cultural pillar of Afrikan-dom, overwhelmingly white and, based solely on what I saw that day, detached from the demographic and political realities of “the new South Africa.” That phrase gets volleyed around a lot in tourism websites; I don’t claim to know what it means, but Stellenbosch has the feel of a first retreat in “packing for Perth” — a euphemism for white flight out of South Africa. Maybe rugby itself is something of this sort of escape.  Even at a relatively cosmopolitan school like UCT, rugby is still a white man’s game to “black” soccer. And so drunken diversion happens in the company of (white) prep school mates who like to get really, really wasted, and exercise their entitlement on a grand scale.  Or maybe they could summon that excuse we love so much in America: college. For a time in South Africa, some of the ancestors of the white British and Afrikaners at the rugby game were able to suspend their hostilities for the love of their country and hatred of black people. That phase of South African history — segregation and then apartheid — is over, but the hostilities linger. I’m not sure if alcohol, team spirit, or ethnic slurs were responsible for the several fights between fans of the two schools that erupted and then quickly dissipated. Nor was I able to understand what a Stellenbosch fan said to enrage a black policemen when the latter took down a UCT streaker—one of four. The Afrikanner words to Kumbaya, most likely. By the end of the game, UCT had failed to capitalize on a second half rally and lost 38-31. The bus left three hours behind schedule; the trip’s organizer had passed out, megaphone and all, in the middle of a field. Some fans, however, were getting their second wind, hefting was left of their dignity just far enough to make it into the nearest bar.

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