Rugby fans observe a silence in fight over patriotic symbol


CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- In a symbol of racial reconciliation, nearly 45,000 mostly white rugby fans observed a moment of silence for black victims of violence in South Africa.

The silence quelled a weeklong debate over the national anthem and South African flag, symbols of white repression to blacks but regarded by whites as symbols of patriotism. It also preserved international rugby in South Africa, which last weekend played New Zealand in its first international match in almost a decade.

Thousands of white fans had poured into Cape Town's 'f Newlands Rugby Stadium yesterday with a duel purpose: to watch South Africa's all-white rugby team play Australia and to send a message to their black countrymen. The message was a call from the old South Africa to those who are pushing for a new one where blacks hold the power. It was that whites were not ready to let blacks tell them what flag to fly or what anthem to sing.

The dispute began at last weekend's rugby match against New Zealand. The match was scheduled after the African National Congress dropped its opposition to international tours, and in return asked white rugby officials not to fly the flag or sing the anthem, titled "Die Stem" ("The Voice").

The ANC also asked rugby officials to observe a moment of silence for the mostly black victims of violence in the country. But in a moment of defiance, the mostly white audience burst into song last week when it was supposed to be silent.

That prompted angry ANC officials to threaten to block future international rugby matches. But they said all depended on whether white rugby fans repeated their defiance in the match with Australia.

Thousands of white fans came prepared to do just that. Though rugby officials agreed not to fly the flag officially, white fans bought up every flag in town.

Some made their statement by draping their flags around their bodies. Others marched carrying flags on poles. Some painted their faces or their hair orange, white and blue.

"I brought my flag because I love South Africa," said Chris Williamse, marching unsteadily in front of a parade of inebriated fans.

Many whites vowed to sing their anthem, and right-wing radicals from the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement passed out leaflets outside the stadium to "stand up and be counted" by singing the anthem. "Your freedom depends on it," the leaflets said.

But the fans also decided that the future of international rugby competition depended on their silence. So they said they would observe the moment of silence before singing their national song.

When the announcer asked the mostly white crowd to observe "a few moments of silence in memory of all the victims of violence in South Africa," the stadium stood still for 17 seconds.

Then, after the announcer thanked the crowd, music burst over the sound system that drowned out any attempts to sing the anthem. The music continued until the teams rushed onto the field and the crowd's attention shifted.

South Africa lost the match 26-3.

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