South Africa | At the top of our thoughts, near the bottom of the world

Post-independence and post-democracy, most countries quickly fade off the dinner and coffee tables of the world and we don’t talk about them. We want to keep the focus of attention on the country and keep it at the top of the mind of the world: to discuss us, to talk about us, to write about us.
Danny Jordaan, CEO, 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee

Green Point stadium, a 2010 World Cup semifinal venue, approaches completion in Cape Town, Jun 09. (Photo courtesy Department of the Premier, Provincial Government Western Cape)

Cape Town, Jun 22 | At this extremely southern destination world football finds itself poised between an obscenity and a dream. The obscenity is the reported £136 million bank draft Real Madrid will relay to fellow European giants Manchester United and AC Milan for Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká. The immense sum, spent with all the consideration of a sigh, mocks the idea of football as a sport for all. Bobby Charlton calls the £80 million Ronaldo fee, a world record, “a little bit vulgar” but the price of doing business.

The counterpoised dream is that a nation of the rainbow such as South Africa might, on Eduardo Galeano’s subjective scale of wrong and right in soccer, nudge a balance skewed toward profit back toward beauty. Football could shift from shadow to sun, even as the World Cup ventures to the southern hemisphere’s late autumn and winter beginning 11 Jun 2010.

“This is a place where sports is a necessity, not a luxury,” said prisoner Big Mo Masemola of the soccer culture and league apparatus that developed starting in the 1960s on Robben Island, seven miles off Cape Town. He speaks in the book by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, More Than Just a Game: Football v Apartheid (2008). Throughout formal correspondence among political prisoners seeking to keep alive their ambition of a free South Africa through fastidious application of FIFA regulations to the island-based Makana Football Association, the standard courtesy closing was “Yours in sport.”

Dilemmas confronting those incarcerated on Robben Island resemble the balancing act South Africans face while negotiating FIFA’s viselike grip on its trademark product and the desire to lift a country skilled in creative coexistence. FIFA’s control extends in the ongoing Confederations Cup to strict brand management, such that a perturbed reader of Business Day could not buy a 650 rand ($79) replica Bafana Bafana jersey for want of proper plastic.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu invoked the phrase “rainbow people” at a Cape Town demonstration in 1989. But how does a society come into its own when it realizes that being the rainbow nation is not good enough? “A rainbow is ephemeral. It’s the consequence of a unique circumstance,” says Paul Bannister, acting CEO of Brand South Africa. The idea of “branding” the country took root 10 years ago when tourism authorities realized the mundane existence of a stable constitutional democracy—at least in contrast to the upheavals of the previous decade—would not take South Africa to the level of Brazil, Russia, India and China as power players.

Now, on a more human scale, there are signs that locals are looking to discover their own approaches to righting inequities, even drawing a thread between key events in the freedom struggle and the World Cup. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if those youth in 1976 did not actually rise up and start the process which led to the 1994 elections,” says Rich Mkhondo, spokesman for the 2010 organizing committee, referring to the Soweto student uprising.

Home-based media might be South Africa organizers’ worst enemy. The headline splashed across the Cape Argus on Jun 20 appears less clear-cut the next day, when fear-mongering about safety in the Johannesburg area gave way to allegations that Egyptian players had been victimized by unscrupulous sex workers.

Earlier generations remind South Africans of resources that came to the fore when resisting apartheid. Sorarya Solomon, head of NICRO, a nationwide nongovernmental group that works to rehabilitate young offenders, points to 2010 as a source of hope for strengthening communities. During apartheid, she says, communities facilitated a network of safe houses. “If you were being chased by the apartheid police, you knew which home you could be safe in.”

Officials do not duck the paradox that affluence and tin-shack construction exist in proximity. Highway reconstruction from the Cape Town airport to downtown draws close to squatters’ settlements in plain view. “That is the reality of South Africa,” says the coordinator of World Cup preparations in Western Cape province, Laurine Platzky. She mentions forced migrations during apartheid and South Africa’s attraction to asylum seekers. She rejects that the shacks somehow be hidden from view. Yet earlier this month the Constitutional Court approved an order evicting 20,000 residents of the Joe Slovo settlement, what one of the advocates for the settlers, Sandra Liebenberg, calls the largest sanctioned eviction since apartheid. The positive side is that dwellers had access to the judicial system and a legal support network, rather than facing the uncompromising bulldozers that crunched their shacks with regularity in the early ’90s.

Novelist Bryan Rostron resists any attempt on South Africa’s part to pose as a “faux western nation.” “Evidence also suggests that Fifa wants SA to censor our poverty. … The question is: will we play along with this charade?”

The Cape Flats area, where the Joe Slovo homes are located, became a resettlement area during apartheid and also a home for grassroots soccer. Despite its association with township culture, soccer is no longer black only, with other sports showing signs of entering the mix. Welile Nhlapo, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, remembers brutal township soccer battles from his youth. “I got kicked,” he says. But now cricket is infiltrating urban squalor.

Nhlapo also studies how the various national teams render the gem of world anthems, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.” Watching the Springboks belt out the isiXhosa/isiZulu of the first stanza, which takes skill, Nhlapo says he understands how Nelson Mandela‘s embrace of the side at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, also in South Africa, helped make one country. The majority-white Springboks “have had to develop that sense of saying, ‘Here we are, we are South Africans. We belong,’ ” he says.

In contrast, Bafana Bafana, who play Brazil Thursday in one Confederations Cup semifinal, have used one white starter, Matthew Booth, in the tournament. But in the Western Cape, supporters of Ajax Cape Town are divided nearly evenly among the South African race categories of white, colored and African; 40 percent are women. According to Platzky, South Africa has 2.1 million white soccer fans, almost half the total white population.

These shifts contrast with the 46 years of apartheid that followed its imposition by the National Party in 1948. Diversity that had been feared is celebrated in South Africa’s 11 official languages, nine of them indigenous. Translators remain poised in parliament to interpret between Sesotho and IsiZulu, if necessary.

The insularity of the country during apartheid was such that Harry Gwala, an ANC and Communist Party member imprisoned eight years on Robben Island, charged himself with introducing inmates to the “whole big world of football.” The other soccer players, which included the country’s recently elected president, Jacob Zuma, had only heard of English sides, Real Madrid and Italian teams. Gwala “talked enthusiastically about the standard of football in the USSR,” Korr and Close write, “about great footballers in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere, not just in the West.”

The big world of football will not travel west or east but south in one year’s time. That much is certain.

About the trip

The tour of Cape Town and Johannesburg was arranged by the International Marketing Council of South Africa.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] the Confederations Cup and here writes about how preparations for next year’s World Cup are resonating through that society: “Officials do not duck the paradox that affluence and tin-shack construction exist in [...]

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