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Racism allegation overshadows South Africa’s Rugby World Cup campaign

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South Africa’s Rugby World Cup campaign has been overshadowed by accusations of racial and physical abuse leveled at one of its star players, prompting an internal investigation from the sport’s governing body and an inquiry by the South African Human Rights Commission.

In a media release, SA Rugby confirmed it’s examining an alleged incident involving 27-year-old forward Eben Etzebeth and another man outside a Cape Town bar in August.

Etzebeth has been accused of using the word “hotnot” — a derivative of the disparaging word ‘hottentot’ used by European settlers to refer to indigenous South Africans — as well as violent conduct.

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On his Facebook page on August 25, Etzebeth refuted the allegations.

“It is completely untrue and unfounded to claim that I physically or racially abused anyone in Langebaan as has been reported on social media. Multiple witnesses can corroborate that,” he wrote.

“I am and will always strive to be a true ambassador to this beautiful rainbow nation and the sport that I love.”

On Wednesday, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) said it was taking Etzebeth’s case to the Equality Court to “institute legal proceedings” on Friday, the same day South Africa plays Italy in Shizuoka, Japan.

In South Africa, the Equality Court operates like a civil court.

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A SA Rugby spokesman said it “reaffirms its commitment as a good corporate citizen to abide by any requirements placed on it to or its employees by South African authorities. We have fulfilled all requests to date and will continue to do so as and when advised.”

“Following our discussions with the SAHRC we have instituted an internal process to address the matter, the details of which remain an employment matter between SA Rugby and the player.”

Reminders of a fractured past

The issue of race remains a sensitive and divisive subject given South Africa’s history.

The Springbok emblem was closely associated with the oppressive apartheid regime until former president Nelson Mandela used it to bridge racial divides prior to the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.

Many black and mixed-race South Africans prefer to support opposing nations rather than the Springboks and rugby stadiums can still be unwelcoming spaces for them.

Speaking to the media in Japan, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi — the country’s first ever black African captain — said that his team would not be distracted when South Africa plays Italy.

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“For us, we are just here to play and I know that Eben is playing (against Italy),” Kolisi said. “We haven’t had any distractions all week.

“It’s a very important game for us this week. Every game for us from now is a playoff game. If we slip up, we’re out of the competition so that’s what we’ve been focusing on.”

South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus, who has turned the Springboks into World Cup contenders following victory in this year’s Rugby Championship — the annual international competition against southern hemisphere’s giants New Zealand, Australia and Argentina — has underlined his support of Etzebeth.

“I was definitely worried about it when I first heard about it,” Erasmus said. “if there was any truth to it that would have been a massive issue for us. But after chatting to Eben and hearing his side of the story, there is trust between a coach and a player.

“I have to trust him to do some stuff on the field and win Test matches and he must trust me to believe him when he tells me something.”

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