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Bulls supporters cheer on May 22, 2010 during the Super14 Rugby Union semifinal between Bulls and Crusaders at Soweto's Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa. Many applauded the decision to move a Super 14 rugby union championship semi-final to the historic black township of Soweto. Traditionally white rugby has never held a major match in one of the townships where blacks were confined under segregationist apartheid rule, which ended with the first all-race elections in 1994.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Just a few weeks ago, after the sensational news of the murder of white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche, many people were making hysterical predictions of race riots in South Africa.

White supporters of Mr. Terreblanche were vowing revenge, just as the youth wing of South Africa's ruling party was gaining notoriety for singing "Shoot the Boer" - an apartheid-era anti-colonial song. Racial tensions seemed to be spiraling out of control.

But the catastrophe never happened. There were no race riots, no racial uprising. In fact, just the opposite has happened: South Africa has instead witnessed one of the most dramatic gestures of racial reconciliation that it has seen for many years.

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It happened on Saturday when a top rugby playoff match was switched from Pretoria to a stadium in Soweto. The move was required because the stadium in Pretoria was needed for the soccer World Cup. But it meant that the symbol of Afrikaner sports - the Bulls rugby team, the pride of white-dominated Pretoria - would be venturing into the heart of the country's biggest township, the scruffy sprawling city of shacks and matchbox houses where blacks were forcibly relegated in the apartheid era.

Many whites - especially the Afrikaners who controlled South Africa during apartheid - have never been in Soweto. The townships were perceived (inaccurately) as highly dangerous, crime-ridden, and hostile to whites. Even when busloads of foreign tourists came into Soweto to visit the museums and historic sites in recent years, many Afrikaners were reluctant to visit the township, either from fear or from ignorance or from decades of habit.

Blacks, too, were traditionally wary of rugby fans. In the old divided South Africa, soccer was the black sport, and rugby was the white sport, and rarely did the twain ever meet.

The Bulls, however, have a fanatical following. Their stadium in Pretoria is always filled with 50,000 screaming supporters - almost entirely Afrikaner. And they will follow the Bulls anywhere - even into a township.

Nobody quite knew what would happen when the Bulls and their fans arrived in Soweto. One columnist said it was the biggest invasion of white people into Soweto since 1976 - when the invaders were truckloads of heavily armed policemen who cracked down on the famous Soweto uprising.

But if there was any nervousness or trepidation among the first-time visitors, it quickly vanished. The event was extraordinary. Thousands of Afrikaners - waving blue flags and wearing the blue uniforms of their beloved Bulls - strolled through the streets of Orlando (a neighborhood of Soweto) to reach the stadium. They were greeted, astonishingly, by thousands of cheering blacks who lined the streets to welcome the visitors.

The whites stopped for a drink at the local shebeens (watering holes). They discovered that the natives were friendly, cheerful, sports-mad, and happy to see them. There were scenes of blacks and whites hugging, shaking hands, laughing together and drinking together. Many blacks even took photos of the Bulls fans on their cellphones - as a memento of the rare day when the Afrikaners came to visit.

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The match was a huge success. Blacks from Soweto attended the match, alongside the Afrikaners. Everyone got along famously. No violence was recorded (aside from the ritualized violence on the rugby pitch, of course).

It was all very reminiscent of that historic rugby match in 1995, just a year after the collapse of apartheid, when Nelson Mandela persuaded blacks and whites to celebrate together as South Africa won a stirring victory at the rugby World Cup - an event memorialized in the Hollywood movie Invictus last year.

And top it all off, the Bulls won the playoff match in Soweto, defeating a team from New Zealand. It means that the Bulls will advance to the championship game, to be held this Saturday. Where? In Soweto, of course.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the veteran anti-apartheid leader, said it was one of the most important days in the history of South African sports. "Not too long ago, Pretorians may have choked on their mustaches at the thought of skopping pale toe (kicking for the posts) at Orlando Stadium in Soweto," he said. "And the arrival of these giant Bulls from the north would have sent Sowetans ducking for cover."

The decision to play such a high-profile rugby match in Soweto "should be applauded by all South Africans," he said.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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