The right side – a storm in a linguistic rugby game

What is in a word, is a question often asked and during the past Rugby World Cup, the answer was alot; for South Africa, the Springboks and the future of one of the teams’ top players, hooker Bongi Mbonambi.

With the final game less than a week away, Mbonambi faced being banned from the match against arch-rivals the All Blacks from New Zealand, something the Boks could ill afford. Mbonambi is a specialist hooker and the only one available for the side after Malcom Marx was injured. South Africa beat England by a single point following another nailbiter when the Boks scraped through with another one-pointer against France.

After South Africa lost against Ireland, I of course, stopped watching. My nerves just could not handle the stress. I would keep myself busy in the kitchen, listen to my husband’s loud commentary, and only stick my nose in when it sounded like we scored a point.

That was an old habit dating back to 2007 when South Africa lifted the trophy. It so happened that the final in 2007 was on the same day as my fortieth birthday. However, after the first 10 minutes, I could not watch anymore and walked the street with my brother Gary. It so happened that the area I lived in was full of restaurants, and whenever we heard cheering, we would look through the windows to get an update on the score. I am the Springboks number one fan, who could not watch the game live in 2007 and the same went for the 2023 final.

The k-word had a completely different meaning.

I watched the England versus South Africa replay the next day, and then the kantroversy exploded. Mbonambi was accused of a racial slur against England flank Tom Curry. And in this instance the k-word had a completely different meaning. Curry voiced his complaint to the referee Ben O’Keefe and asked what he had to do if the hooker called him a name. The referee replied: “Nothing, please. I’ll be on it.”

To put this into perspective, the South African team tends to use Afrikaans during a match so that the opposition does not know what they are saying. Apparently, at least to the South African public, Mbonambi referred to the wit kant, meaning the white side. The English roses were playing in white, and the Springboks in green.

Now the word kant may sound like a swear word in English. It means side, lace, brim, margin, or border among other meanings. In this case, probably side.

Mbonambi’s fate for the final was in question

In the context, it could be perceived as a racial slur and Mbonambi’s fate for the final was in question. As stand in-captain for Siya Kolisi and the only hooker available for the Springboks this was bad news. South Africans were worried about what this meant for the final. Only a few weeks earlier, playing the national anthem and wearing the Springbok kit was in doubt because the country failed to comply with the new World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code, but losing a hooker was even worse. We can play without our flag and anthem, but not without our hooker.

South Africans as always, took to social media and kant jokes were doing the rounds.  The public was quick to point out what could have been said.

Wit kant means white side and has nothing to do with a racial slur. Mbonambi was only trying to point out on which side the ball was on. Of course, we believed this, but would the powers that be?

The memes flowed. I love my kant, we read. Bongi Mbonambi resurrects Afrikaans with two words, I read. Even the Zulu word kanti, which means whereas, came into the mix.

We laughed, we cried but more than anything we worried.

When 60 million plus people believe in one little team

It was not the first time that translation or interpretation was cause for a ban. In an article contributed by Fritz Joubert, a former journalist, to a book by Frikkie van Rensburg Cheetaland: 125 Jaar se Lief en Leed he makes mention of a match between a South African and English club outside London.

The date is not mentioned in the article, but half time through the game the flank and captain decide to change sides. The captain said: “Go scrum on the other side.” Either the Freestater he was talking to didn’t hear or understand and asked the captain what he said. The captain shouted: “Die ander kant,” which translated to the other side. However, the referee blew his whistle because what he heard was something he interpreted as something else. The captain asked what he did wrong, and the referee said that he would not be called what he assumed was a swear word. “I won’t stand for that.”

And the captain was sent off. A red card in today’s terms.

Nerves were shot and waiting for the decision

What with South Africa scraping through two matches by a single point and losing to the leprechauns, the Irish, we needed all our men on the field. Nerves were shot and waiting for the decision did nothing to help.

Just before the final Mbonambi was cleared and joined the squad for the final. That was another match I could not bear to watch until the next day. If you are a South African, you will understand then that when 60 million plus people believe in one little team that give us hope beyond hope.

So, who’s kant are you on? On the kant of the Green and Gold. Whoever the kant of the story. We, the Springboks, are the world champions, and we are proud of our kant.

Your friendly Pretoria-based wordsmith. Juggling words, pasta, and paintbrushes, she's your go-to for both wit and rugby wisdom!

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