Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Heroes' welcome for SA Springboks

Thousands of fans have greeted the South African rugby team as they arrived home after winning the Rugby World Cup in France on Saturday.

South Africa's Springbok captain John Smit lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy to show supporters

The Springboks' victory has been embraced as a symbol of unity

Springbok captain John Smit led his team out of Johannesburg airport holding aloft the Webb Ellis trophy.

The Springboks lifted the coveted trophy after a 15-6 win over England.

Their victory has been embraced as a symbol of unity and reconciliation in a country still trying to overcome racial tensions left by the apartheid era.

"We expected it to be pretty busy at the airport but this has gone far beyond anything we imagined," said Smit.

"We're just happy that we have brought the trophy back where it belongs, with the people of South Africa."

Skipped work

The team will be guests at a series of victory events this week, including a reception hosted by President Thabo Mbeki and a open-top bus tour of Johannesburg and Soweto.

Bryan Habana and Percy Montgomery celebrate

The team will be attending various victory events

The BBC's Peter Greste was at Oliver Tambo International Airport among the thousands of people who donned their Springbok jerseys and skipped the start of work and school to greet their heroes.

Some had even camped there overnight.

He said whole offices turned out, both black and white together, basking in the reflected glory the Springboks are bringing home with them.

"I'm more than happy. I don't know what to say - it's another feeling. I'm on top of the world, I'm happy because I'm part of them. I'm proud of South Africa," one fan told the BBC.

It was not just the fans who embraced one another.

"I guess that every South African is just so proud of being South African," said Brian Habana, one of the seven black players in the touring group.

"It just brings us so much closer together and we as a group of 47 achieved that; and every person that's let that feeling go to his head in the last four years has made a contribution towards this and the success of South Africa as a nation."

Racial quota debate

Across South Africa media reaction since Saturday's game has had a common theme of national unity.

Some fans, like John, said they hoped this feeling will continue after the celebrations finish.

"If it's not a unifying experience then it's a waste of time," he told the BBC.

"You know this is what it's about, it's about bringing us together, hopefully people getting over their history and coming together and moving forward together so I'm excited about that. I'm hoping that's what it's going to produce and not just now but in years to come."

Deputy Sports Minister Gert Oosthuizen said: "These heroes have put out a positive message that we are a winning nation. They have proved that South Africa is united in our diversity and they have made us proud.

"They have demonstrated the power of sport to break down language barriers. We must take this momentum forward."

Our correspondent says there is now a debate raging as to whether a racial quota should be imposed on the national team.

The coach, Jake White, says the team should be selected on merit and the question is still to be resolved.

But for now all South Africans are celebrating as one, our reporter says.

And the authorities are hoping to stretch that sense of pride and unity for as long as possible with a series of triumphal parades through the key cities over the coming weeks.

BBC NEWS | Africa | Heroes' welcome for SA Springboks