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Making Art from Uncertainty: Magic and Its Politics in South African Rugby

By Joshua D. Rubin

Cite As:
Rubin, Joshua. 2014. “Making Art from Uncertainty: Magic and Its Politics in South African Rugby”. Cultural Anthropology 29 (4), 699-719.


This essay examines the intersection of the politics of post-apartheid South Africa and the politics of playing rugby. It traces the sport’s history through its manifestations in the apartheid state and the anti-apartheid struggle, but it also shows that South African rugby counts for more than the sum of these histories. Drawing inspiration from the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Franz Boas, as well as from the aesthetic theory of Theodor Adorno, the article argues that rugby contains an inherent dimension of unpredictability that allows it to recombine and challenge the symbols and sentiments assigned to it. Considered in this way, rugby acquires a measure of autonomy as a social production, shaping possibilities and entering into existing political conversations with its own voice. Acknowledging this small space of unpredictability, then, carries important implications for how we theorize sporting performances in relation to other forms of creative expression. Rugby players, coaches, and teams, for their part, are well aware of the sport’s autonomous dimension, and they know that they must negotiate the uncertainty of the sport if they wish to participate at all. These social actors regard uncertainty as a problem to be solved, and they conceptualize and work through rugby’s layering of unpredictable instant atop unpredictable instant in socially and historically specific ways. As a result, the negotiations between South Africans and their rugby become a powerful heuristic for post-apartheid social life, and they produce not only violence and injuries but also moments of magic thick with political significance.


sport; art and aesthetics; performance; South Africa