Head to Head: WSU’s controversial haka

MARIETTE ADAMS and DYLAN JACK debate whether Walter Sisulu University should continue to perform the haka before Varsity Shield matches.

Adams says no

Various forms of the haka are performed by various Polynesian countries for various reasons. Closer to home, Walter Sisulu University have been performing their own rendition of the haka since 2016 and it’s now the second time their pre-game ritual has caused a furore on various social-media platforms.

Before their 22-try, 136-11 demolition job of tournament rookies DUT on Monday night, WSU lined up and danced their way into many a Twitter mention, Facebook comment and Instagram story with descriptive words like ’pathetic’, ‘embarrassing’, ‘shameful’, ‘bizarre’, ‘ridiculous’ ‘cringe fest’,’distasteful’, ‘exciting’ and ‘entertaining’ being flung around.

But while their meek renditions of the haka may be any number of those things, it is not wrong to do so.

That’s one thing we need to be clear on: there is no wrongdoing on WSU’s part when they subject their opponents and viewers alike to a diluted version of the haka as if it was conned off Wish.com. But the reasoning behind the action and the decision to continue doing the Polynesian war cry is morally corrupt and hinges on the edge of cultural appropriation.

And it’s not at all difficult to comprehend why, when with a few strokes of the keyboard you can find out the symbolic significance behind the haka and what and how much it means to the Maori.

The excerpt below, from an article published on www.newzealand.com, provides the perfect summation.

The haka is a type of ceremonial Māori dance or challenge, usually performed in a group and typically represent a display of a tribe’s pride, strength and unity.

The words of a haka often poetically describe ancestors and events in the tribe’s history.

Traditionally, the haka was performed when two parties met as part of the customs around encounters. 

For example, the haka was used on the battlefield to prepare warriors mentally and physically for battle, but it was also performed when groups came together in peace. 

Whether the WSU players fully grasp this concept of the haka is not clear, but there can be no explanation of why they chose to make it their war cry when it clearly speaks to the ancestry of an entirely different ethnic group.

Personally, that is not even the biggest offence WSU inflict with their stance on performing the haka. By hacking a symbolic war challenge unique and sacred to Polynesia and its people, this WSU team is suppressing South African culture in general and Xhosa culture – which is dominant in the Eastern Cape where this team hails from – in particular. We are witnessing first-hand the blatant undermining and total disregard of our own country’s unique diversity.

There are a wide selection of practices and dances WSU could’ve picked from that would honour their cultural roots and traditions while still serving as pre-match intimidation of their opponents.

And that is not just specific to WSU. For example, if DUT ever decide to go the same route, they could incorporate Zulu culture and traditions in their war cry.

Another prime example, I for one wouldn’t be averse to, is if UWC or CPUT introduce some unique dance while yaadt music blares over the PA system in the background as a way of intimidation before a Varsity Cup/Shield match. This genre of music is largely unique to Cape Town and its people and how they express themselves.

In short, WSU are not doing anything wrong, but they could definitely do better.

Jack says yes

Ever since WSU first performed the haka live on TV in 2017, it has been hotly debated whether the Eastern Cape-based university should continue to perform the Maori dance, or even if Varsity Rugby and University Sports South Africa (USSA) should ban the team from doing it.

Those against the performance believe that it is a form of cultural appropriation, that the WSU team don’t fully understand or appreciate the meaning of the dance and therefore are doing it a disservice. There is also the question as to why WSU has not instead adopted a performance closer to their heritage, which being from the Eastern Cape, would be from the Xhosa culture.

While those questions are legitimate, there is still no reason to go so far as to ban WSU from performing the haka before Varsity Shield matches.

To understand this line of argument, one needs to understand the story as to how WSU adopted the haka, after being inspired by the 2015 World Cup-winning All Blacks.

It was in 2016, when the team weren’t even involved in the Varsity Shield, that WSU brought their rugby team kits resembling those of the All Blacks. Inspired by New Zealand’s never-say-die attitude and their aggressive-yet-attractive style of play, it was the WSU players who took it upon themselves to learn the haka.

The important thing to take from this is that to WSU, and their ‘All Blacks’, performing the haka is by no means a gimmick. They take it seriously and make sure that every single rugby player performing it, knows the history and meaning behind it.

It is also important to mention that WSU are by no means the only non-New Zealand sports team to perform the haka. There are a dozen of high-school football teams in the USA who do the same.

Nor are they the only South African team to adopt another nation’s cultural identity. Similarly inspired by Brazil’s dominance of international football and their free-flowing style of play, Mamelodi Sundowns adopted the nickname ‘the Brazilians’ and have incorporated that into their branding, with even their yellow-and-green kit resembling that of the Brazil national team.

South African rugby fans themselves are unwittingly guilty of a form of cultural appropriation when they let ‘Ole, ole, ole’ ring out throughout their stadiums as a response to the haka, in a desperate attempt to drown it out. What exactly does a song that has its origins in Spanish bullfighting and football have to do with South African rugby? Why don’t more South African fans embrace ‘Amagwijo’ or other more culurally-appropriate songs as a why to negate the haka?

And let’s not pretend like the haka hasn’t already been slightly commercialized by World Rugby, who will use it to market rugby union and yet at the same time will fine any team that comes within 10 metres of the All Blacks, while they are performing.

Ultimately, these are young men who have been inspired by one of the most dominant rugby teams in Test rugby history. A team that broke records and did it playing some fine rugby. They have no desire to make a mockery of the haka, or to disregard their own culture. On the contrary, there are plenty of videos out there of the ‘All Blacks’ and other WSU teams singing ‘Amagwijo’, which unfortunately have not garnered the same attention.

Questions of cultural identity and cultural appropriation are understandable in this case. But cutting out what has become part of WSU rugby’s culture would be an extreme response. Heck, even New Zealand Rugby themselves have no issue at all with it and understand that it is the ultimate homage to a great team.

Photo: Catherine Kotze/Varsity Sports

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Dylan Jack