South Africa and the 2010 World Cup: the great leap forward

The first African World Cup in South Africa is already having a dramatic effect on social cohesion in a country with a legacy of deep racial inequality.

In recent months, South Africans of all races have been donning their country’s national team shirts on Fridays, flying the national flag from their car windows, wrapping their rear-view mirrors in socks sporting the national flag, and chanting slogans about how Africa’s time has come – “It’s here. Can you feel it?” There is a rare inclusive outpouring of patriotic fervor.

This has risen to fever pitch since the national team, currently ranked only 90 in the world but assured of a place in the 34-nation cup because of South Africa’s host status, held Mexico to a draw in the opening match and scored the most spectacular goal of the contest so far.

Now that the Cup is well under way, South Africans are undergoing a seismic shift in terms of social cohesion and identity.

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Just months before the World Cup began, there was a protracted and heated public debate that threatened to open Pandora’s box. In March, Julius Sello Malema, a South African politician and the president of the African National Congress Youth League, was found by a South African regional high court to be singing and advocating the singing of a song that was held “unconstitutional and unlawful” and amounted to hate speech.

He was subsequently served with a court order preventing him from singing the song pending a hearing. Mr. Malema, who is black, was singing an old liberation song which calls on its cadres to “kill a Boer” after it had been ruled to constitute hate speech.

Boer was the label used to define the descendants of the Dutch colonialists that settled in South Africa in the 17th century. The term refers to conservative Afrikaans-speaking South Africans as the enemy during the apartheid era. The ANC has lodged an appeal against the ruling.

At the height of the row, a half-forgotten extreme right-wing Boer leader, Eugene Terreblanche whose name means “white earth” in French, was murdered by two black farm workers.

But that is generally the exception to the rule. After decades of apartheid, South Africa has for the most part become a model of racial reconciliation, with a burgeoning black middle class. And there is a healthy ongoing debate about whether the large numbers of poor and unemployed South Africans will benefit from the expenditure of some $5 billion on stadiums and related infrastructure.

But the most enduring benefactor of the World Cup will be the national psyche and the quest for a common national identity to transcend a deeply divided past.

As former President Thabo Mbeki said when he spoke at the handing over ceremony in Berlin in 2006, the German World Cup succeeded in restoring some of Germany’s self-respect after its legacy of National Socialism.

“We are confident that the 2010 soccer World Cup will do the same to consolidate our self-respect and dignity gained when we attained our freedom and democracy in 1994 and, in a unique way, also help our own nation and the continent of Africa,” Mr. Mbeki said.

White South Africans, in the past wedded to rugby while soccer was and remains an overwhelmingly black sport, are starting to take ownership of the national team and willing it to victory despite its low international ranking.

Even before the opening game, the level of national excitement among whites as well as blacks was palpable.

And, tellingly, not just in South Africa.

In London, about a month before the opening game, eight South African stand-up comedians, representing a kaleidoscope of the country’s racial diversity, kept an overwhelmingly South African audience of more than 3,000 doubled up with laughter for three hours.

The show – called Befunny Befunny, which is a word-play on the South African national soccer team Bafana Bafana (the boys) – was an irreverent attempt to build national enthusiasm for the world’s largest sporting event among South Africa’s largest expatriate community.

It was actually a catharsis of the kind that has been kindled by the national convergence and unity of purpose thrust on South Africans by hosting the world’s largest and most diverse sporting event.

Inside the London hall where people had gathered to laugh, the comedians’ repartee slaughtered a series of favorite targets: FIFA, Malema, the police shoot-first policy, violent crime, and, significantly: race. Even a few years ago those topics would not and could not be talked about outside the comfort zone of their racial or cultural groups.

“The hosting of the 2010 World Cup will change the way the world sees South Africa and the African continent forever,” said President Jacob Zuma, who kicked a mean soccer ball while serving time for resistance to apartheid on South Africa’s notorious Alcatraz-like Robben Island prison.

Just as the 2006 World Cup had Germans smiling and waving the national flag en masse for the first time in 60 years, so the first African World Cup in South Africa is already having a dramatic effect on social cohesion in a country with a legacy of deep racial inequality.

John Battersby is a former southern Africa correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor and a former editor of the Sunday Independent in Johannesburg. He is co-author of “Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs.” He is a trustee of the Aaron Mokoena Foundation, which supports young soccer players.

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