JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Thousands of South Africans screamed with joy, danced and sang at OR Tambo airport near Johannesburg on Tuesday (Nov 5) as the Springboks who won the Rugby World Cup returned home.
Forward Pieter-Steph du Toit, voted World Rugby Player of the Year two days ago, and scrum-half Faf de Klerk were among the first to arrive.
Nearly four hours later, the star attractions, captain Siya Kolisi and coach Rassie Erasmus, touched down to a frenzied reception.
The victorious squad, coaches and officials were scheduled to arrive between Tuesday and Wednesday as no airline could accommodate the entire group on one flight.
"We are privileged to do what we are doing... we know that can give a little bit of hope to the people," Kolisi told a packed media conference.
"We won because we wanted it a lot. The people here gave us another reason to want it even harder. We had our people with us and it was really special for us."
Erasmus, who celebrated his 47th birthday on Tuesday, said: "What we want to keep on lasting is what we're seeing here at the airport (racial unity).
"We have to focus on making sure that everybody gets equal chances of playing, everybody gets good nutrition and everybody gets a fair chance.
"There are so many things that we have to fix, we can't just focus on the Springboks. There are so many bigger things that we have to fix."
A carnival atmosphere enveloped the normally sedate international arrivals section of the airport as every Springbok received deafening applause.
Black and white, male and female, young, middle aged and old, low-income earners and the wealthy all descended on the airport east of Johannesburg to salute their heroes.
Many wore replica green and gold shirts and waved national flags as they celebrated the rugby triumph, which was all the sweeter after poor recent results by the national football and cricket teams.
The Springboks first dominated and then crushed pre-match favourites England 32-12 in Japanese city Yokohama last Saturday to lift the World Cup a record-equalling third time.
Winning the four-yearly showcase of rugby so decisively has lifted the spirits of a nation mired in economic and social quagmires.
Although boasting the most developed economy in Africa, South Africa is struggling with stagnant growth, near 30-percent unemployment and widespread poverty and inequality.
Media headlines about corruption in state institutions and violence against women and children also appear with alarming frequency.
Rosharon Morgan, 34, said she closed the family engineering business for the day in order to welcome the Springboks.
"I'm here because the Springboks are the pride of the nation," she told AFP.
"I was listening to the speeches of Siya and Rassie and they were along the lines of uniting us and giving us hope.
"Right now, there is a lot of euphoria in the county, but what we need to do is turn that into tangible changes. The problem is that we are not working toward (racial) unity.
"There are still many issues that need to be addressed such as racial and economic inequalities."
Moemedi Mashiolane, 45, works in the security industry and took advantage of free train transport from central Johannesburg to join the celebrations.
"I came here because this is Nelson Mandela's legacy - this is what he would have wanted," he said, referring to the support the deceased former state president gave the Springboks.
"Rugby has united us. Where I come from rugby is a sport played by white people but today it has united us.
"We want white people to know that we want to be part of rugby and they must allow us to play the game."
Mashiolane said he loved the speech Kolisi made last weekend about unity as it uplifted his spirits.
"He knows about our lives as black people and I hope politicians learn from that. They must not think we are stupid - we can see they are trying to divide us."
What made the Springboks' success special was it being achieved with a team reflecting both racial groups with nine whites and six blacks in the starting line-up.
Last year, Kolisi became the first black Test captain in South African history.
Formed in 1891, the Springboks fielded only whites for 90 years before fly-half Errol Tobias became the first black player to represent his country.
Just one black player, winger Chester Williams, featured in the 1995 World Cup-winning side and there were two black wingers, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana, in the team that repeated the feat 12 years later.
Despite government pressure for the Springboks to select teams that better reflected a population that is 90 percent black, many coaches chose predominantly white teams.
Erasmus turned the tide after replacing embattled Allister Coetzee as coach last year, giving a string of black stars opportunities.