Rugby: Sport or Means of Political Reconciliation?

John Dunn '10 and Hamilton rugby alum Rezaan Daniels '07.
John Dunn '10 and Hamilton rugby alum Rezaan Daniels '07.
Who knew sports could be so academic? John Dunn ’10 did. This summer, he studied the political and social symbolism of rugby in post-apartheid South Africa. He believes that rugby has served as a means of political reconciliation in recent years through conflict resolution and racial integration. Dunn wanted to investigate the legitimacy of the African National Congress’s claim that rugby is an emblem for national unity. His project was funded through the Levitt Research Fellows Program, which is open to students who wish to collaborate with faculty members on intensive research projects related to public affairs. Dunn’s advisor for the summer was Associate Professor of History Kevin Grant.

Between 1990 and 1996, the South African government carried out the slow process of dismantling apartheid, or racial segregation, which had become an official policy following the general election of 1948. In 1995, South Africa hosted the third Rugby World Cup. Until then, rugby was a dominant part of white culture. But when Nelson Mandela, sporting a Springbok (South Africa’s team name) shirt and cap, presented the champion Cup to South African captain Francois Pienaar, they shook hands as a tribute to a new era. In the years to come, rugby would become more and more integrated. Even people outside the country’s border would recognize it as a symbol of how black people surmounted oppression.

Dunn attended the Natal Sharks Academy this summer, a training camp for teenagers in Durban, South Africa. His participation allowed him to witness the role that rugby plays in social behavior and attitudes toward black citizens. He and 17 others trained all day, testing their speed and agility and listening to lectures from professional players and coaches. Dunn kept a close watch on how the trainees interacted and what they said about current political episodes. When driving to a field, he listened intently to their conversations, and did research on the Dutch Afrikaans population. His principal goal is to determine whether or not rugby is still a white sport or if it has really gone through a genuine transformation.

Although the training camp was hard work, rugby is not new to Dunn. He plays on the men’s team at Hamilton, and says that the program has grown in the past few years through increased interest from the student body, as well as support from the athletic department. When he took Grant’s Lives against Apartheid class, he read the book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,” and was immediately inspired to become an expert on the topic. “The idea was too big to pass up,” he said.

Dunn feels similarly about all of Hamilton’s history classes, though. “Every history course I’ve taken his been interesting,” he said. “[History] is more than just facts, and seeing what causes what.”

He is unsure of what he wants to do in the professional world after Hamilton, but he will apply to law school this year and might consider a career in education. Dunn is a member of several academic clubs on campus, including the Alexander Hamilton Institute, the Publius Society, and the Christopher Dawson Society.

Dunn is a graduate of Horace Greeley High School.
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