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Mark Gevisser

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

“We did it, we showed the world”

My piece on the 2010 World Cup for the Mail & Guardian:

Sunday’s final crowned a World Cup that has united a nation. But if South Africa can deliver a global mega-event, why can’t it tackle its inequality with the same energy and efficiency?

Sixteen years after experiencing the unforgettable rush of belonging and relief at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, I felt it again last month: at the Free State stadium in Bloemfontein, watching the South African national team play their last World Cup game on 22 June. We beat France 2-1, and although the victory was insufficient to qualify us into the next round, the consensus across the country following the game was that “we won!”

Why? First, because the Bafana Bafana played at last with optimism, unity, and occasional brilliance; as good a recipe as any for a nascent national identity. Second, because we proved to a sceptical world — and thus ourselves — that we could host a World Cup, a hopeful corrective against the negativity that keeps tourists and investment away. Third, because if our government could deliver the world’s biggest mega-sporting event so efficiently, surely it could tackle South Africa’s social and economic ills with similar resolve. But “we won” most of all, because we could finally say “we”.

Just a few weeks previously, the Afrikaner right-wing leader Eugène Terre’Blanche had been killed by a black employee, and the world was predicting civil war. The African National Congress youth leader, Julius Malema, had defied his party by refusing to stop singing an old liberation song, Kill the Boer, and by calling for the dispossession of white farms. The racial temperature had never been higher.

But something shifted during the World Cup: with a team to support and half a million guests to take care of, we found ourselves all on the same side. The festive buzz of a million vuvuzelas came to override the habitual sounds of urban anxiety: the gunfire; the helicopters chasing stolen cars; the aggressive minibus taxis. Sure, it was holiday-time: daily matches, skiving from work, the cities aglitter with flags and foreigners. Still, for the first time in South Africa’s history, it seemed, patriotism was not a political statement. South Africans were waving flags, and supporting their team out of a sense of joy and belonging, rather than the deficit-driven pride that has fuelled both Afrikaner and African nationalism for so long.

At the beginning of the South Africa-France match, I had found myself — to my astonishment — singing the South African national anthem. In the spirit of the reconciliatory Mandela era, the anthem is an amalgam of the liberation hymn, Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika and the apartheid-era Die Stem. I have not been able to bring myself to sing the latter, but as I watched the Afrikaners around me trying to twist their mouths around Nkosi Sikelel and black South Africans in turn belting out Die Stem with unfettered delight, my stand seemed ridiculously churlish, and so I joined in, exalting along with everyone else those Boer ox-wagons as they conquered the interior.

I was with a group of friends. To our left sat a stolid middle-aged black couple in the Mad Hatter attire that has become part of the South African football fan’s kit. In front was a large Indian family which had managed to smuggle samosas past the Fifa branding police; the granny blew her vuvuzela with sincere devotion, and became involved in an hilarious call-and-response with the white teenagers sitting next to her.

Behind us were three younger black men who really knew their football and were enraged at opportunities the Bafana Bafana missed. “Don’t worry, man,” the older Afrikaner next to them responded at the final whistle, “We did it. We showed the world!” And then he unleashed the war cry which reminded us that we were actually in one of South Africa’s most hallowed rugby stadiums, deep in the Afrikaner heartland: “Vrystaaaaaat [Free State]!”

National picnic

We all laughed as we shuffled our way out in a sea of exhilarated yellow. It wasn’t a war, or even a giant self-conscious love-in. It was just a big, happy, national picnic.

After the Bafana were knocked out, it did not take long for South Africans transfer their allegiances to Ghana, the one remaining African team in the competition: “We are all Black Stars now!” trumpeted one Johannesburg newspaper, aptly capturing the national sentiment. A friend who went to the Ghana-US game in Rustenburg reports that every local in this conservative place — white and black alike — was flying the Black Star, and that the Afrikaners in the stadium were cheering for the West Africans as lustily as they would the Springboks.

You would not, of course, have had to look too hard to find some white schadenfreude at the Africans’ failure, in general, at the tournament. The South African journalist Johannes Dieterich told me how he had spent a Saturday night in the Karoo town of De Aar in Northern Cape: “The blacks hung out at the tavern Las Vegas At Night and watched soccer passionately, while the coloureds were in the Platform disco and whites at Pringles. There, the game was on several screens, but nobody was watching. One guy told me, ‘Bafana Bafana should learn from the Springboks how to play, then maybe I will watch them.’”

And just as there were, of course, several muggings, there was the inevitable racial slurring too. A friend heard a white fan, at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld stadium, insult an official repeatedly with the word “kaffir” when he was prevented from bringing his own beer into the stadium.

 

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