A tale of two world cups

Imran Garda examines myth-making and reality in the new South Africa.

south africa world cup
In 1995, South Africa beat New Zealand to win the Rugby World Cup [GETTY]

It has been a month since that chilly Johannesburg evening when 85,000 spectators at Soccer City – and over a billion people around the world – watched Spain’s slow, patient, honest passing and build-up prevail over their opponents’ direct and aggressive football to win them the Fifa World Cup.

The other, more valuable, victory was the successful staging of the World Cup by Africa’s first hosts, South Africa. There were no nuclear attacks by al-Qaeda, no mortars fired by al-Shabab, no wild animals invading the pitch, no wholesale robberies and killings of foreigners and the stadiums did not crumble under the weight of those who sat in them.

But one of the most common questions this South African heard from those who discovered a newfound interest in the country was: “Can your country replicate the ‘Invictus effect’? Can football do on a larger scale for the country what rugby did in 1995?”

The Invictus effect

I am not convinced I agree with the premise, but here is the conventional wisdom:

The year was 1995 and Joel Stransky’s drop-kick sealed a dramatic win over New Zealand’s All-Blacks in injury time, ushering in a new era for South African rugby. In the process, the Springboks instantly secured South African racial harmony and booted out decades of Apartheid for good. That sweet strike was made sweeter because rugby was seen as a quintessential symbol of the minority, which had for so long their metaphorical boot on the necks of the majority.

The glorious finale to Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus, inspired by a John Carlin book, suggested that a nation had sensationally changed in an instant.

The regal Nelson Mandela, the country’s first democratically elected president, stood side-by-side with a man at least his physical equal, the imposing Francois Pienaar. Many critics were quick to point out that while Morgan Freeman looked the part as Mandela, Matt Damon seemed seven inches shorter than the real-life Springbok captain.

Still the event and its historical depiction was a perfect “end of history” scenario for the country. Al Jazeera’s correspondent spoke about being outside a petrol station that day and seeing black attendants and white drivers jumping in unison, sharing hugs and tears of joy as news of the result reached them.

Hollywood hype

Nelson Mandela stood side-by-side with Springbok captain Francois Pienaar [GETTY]

But as the curtains closed on Hollywood’s take on post-Apartheid South Africa, the rainbow nation struggled to live up to the hype of its miraculous conversion. The country battled to transform – and even rugby did not change much.

Barely two years after that World Cup final, Andre Markgraaff, the Springbok coach and a white Afrikaner, was forced to resign after being recorded calling black politicians and rugby officials “fucking kaffirs”.

Markgraaff was the same coach who had decided to give an international call up to Henry Tromp, despite the fact that he had previously been convicted of killing a black farm labourer.

Fast-forward to 2003 and Geo Cronje, the hulking, bearded Springbok lock, was cleared of racism by a South African rugby disciplinary committee, which claimed there was insufficient evidence that his refusal to room with coloured (the term South Africans use for mixed race) teammate Quinton Davids was racially motivated.

Even Chester Williams, the only non-white player in the victorious team, later claimed that he was used as a marketing tool and that the romanticised image of his role in the tournament was a facade. Chester, as he is affectionately known in South Africa, says he was called a “fucking kaffir” by his teammate James Small.

A black sport

But let us put rugby aside for a moment and return to football and Bafana Bafana’s greatest achievement – winning the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations, less than a year after the Springboks were crowned world champions.
The uniquely South African sight of elderly women frying sizzling T-bone steaks for fans outside the stadium and the customary whiff of marijuana that hits you at half-time were on display during that tournament and have all now disappeared. Perhaps only the vuvuzela horn remains from the cultural symbols traditionally associated with South African football.

So with rugby finally wining the hearts and minds of black South Africans and the country seemingly united, surely the entire rainbow nation must have rallied behind their team during Africa’s premier football event? Not so.

I attended every Bafana Bafana game, bar one, during that tournament and noticed that white South Africans were conspicuous by their absence. Although captained by Neil Tovey, a white South African and cult hero among black fans, white society showed little appetite for the team.

It was only when Bafana Bafana booked their place in the final against Tunisia that a few hundred white South Africans made the journey to Soccer City, which is in a part of Johannesburg many would normally have deemed too dangerous to venture to.

Football was still seen, on the whole, as a black sport.

Post-Apartheid economics

Football remains a largely black sport in
South Africa [EPA]

Fourteen years later, however, a foreigner attending the final stages of World Cup 2010 would have been forgiven for thinking that the bulk of South Africans are of white European or Indian descent – so much did they outnumber black and coloured South Africans in the stadiums.

But the demographics of the country had not changed. This was simply post-Apartheid economics on display. The equation is crude but simple. Those who had money got tickets for the games, those who did not stayed at home.

The euphoria of successfully hosting the tournament was dampened by the South African team’s poor showing. Bafana Bafana set an unwanted precedent by becoming the first host nation to be knocked out in the group stages.

Only one African team managed to leap out of their group and into the knockout stages – Ghana. A last minute, heavily manufactured frenzy was created and sponsored by local TV and radio stations as South Africans were urged to get behind Africa’s sole-survivor.

Ghana were re-branded Ba-Ghana Ba-Ghana and the nation sunk in collective angst when Asamoah Gyan’s penalty thundered off the crossbar against Uruguay, missing the chance to eliminate the South Americans and to become the first African team to reach a World Cup semi-final.

Whether sincere or stage-managed, the South African support for Ghana was one of the high points of the competition and could leave a positive long-term legacy. In a country still reeling from xenophobic attacks on African migrants, to see the nation collectively cheer on a continental neighbour was encouraging. We must now hope that this continental solidarity is maintained.

We must now not only hope that this continental solidarity is maintained, but that the month-long capping of the country’s crime rate can translate into long-term security for all and that the more than $4bn spent on infrastructure and stadiums will provide economic solutions in a country where over half the population live below the poverty line long after the memory of the World Cup has faded.

And with all of these potential positives, the greatest hope has to be for true and sustainable racial unity.

It was wonderful to see white South Africans using public transport in Johannesburg’s inner city for the first time, joining their black compatriots as they commuted on buses to football games. The sights our correspondent witnessed back in that petrol station in 1995 were also unforgettable. But as he pointed out – the petrol attendants were black, the drivers white. And for the most part, in cities across the rainbow nation, the petrol attendants are still black and the drivers still white.

True economic, social and, ultimately, racial unity must be built on the basis of reality and post-World Cup South African society could do worse than to look to the example of Spain’s honest build-up rather than quick-fix drop-goals backed up by the myth-making powers of Hollywood.

Source: Al Jazeera