“Feel it. It is here”, so says the national broadcaster’s pay off line for the FIFA 2010 World Cup. And South Africans truly ‘felt’ it. It did, after all, take ten years for it to arrive if you count the Charles Dempsey controversy of choosing to defy his confederation’s mandate to vote for South Africa when it bided to host the 2006, which was subsequently successfully staged in Germany. The weeks leading to the kick off of the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth on June 11th at four o’clock will be remembered with fondness as South Africans (re)discovered the beauty of the national flag and how it was patriotically displaced on cars, out working offices, homes and even on our own persons. Who would blames us, we had foreign visitors to host and as such had to prove the pessimists that we are a ‘rainbow nation’ that Bishop Desmond Tutu and former president Nelson Mandela have been preaching. But for how long would this show of national unity last, will we see flag continue to fly high on July 11th at 22:20(when the Champions are crowned, and hopefully it will be in 90munites)?
Sport, in this case soccer, especially when it involves international competition has a way appealing to nationalistic sense and in so doing invoking patriotism. These proclivities are not exclusive to the South African experience during the World Cup. This is because the sporting arenas are probably the only places where the nations of the world can compete on an equal footing, it therefore means that any victory especially if it’s at the expense of a political rival will inevitably spark senses of jubilation in the victorious country. When Iran beat USA in 2002 World Cup, the victory was more than a footballing victory given the frosty relations between Washington and Tehran. The patriotic fever that engulfed the Republic on June 11th was bona fide and an indication that deep down we, as a not so united country, actually have more in common than our political dispositions would like to otherwise suggest. The host of the ‘holy grail’ of soccer will, according to the organizers and politicians, leave South Africans with a shared national identity and a renewed sense of allegiance to the flag and all that embodies nationhood. But University of Free State Vice Chancellor, Prof Jonathan Jansen, in an article titled: Why I’m no patriotic diehard, disagrees with this ‘all of a sudden’ patriotism and says: “The building of strong national identities is inherently exclusive; to belong to one national grouping is to exclude another. And when the stakes are high – be it the threat of terrorism from the outside or the threat to jobs on the inside – strong feelings of patriotism quickly descend into strong feelings of animosity.” I doubt that the patriotic front that I have seen from compatriots thus far even suggests what the professor cautions against but, like in soccer itself, nothing is for certain.
The advent of the World Cup gave politicians a grand platform to preach to us on how the 30 day tournament would an opportunity to bury the past and emerge on July 12th a more unified country and march forth towards a better post 2010 South Africa. That’s noble and quite poetic but it’s too unfair a burden and expectation to be placed on a sporting code even if it’s one that has shown its of unifying factor in many a conflicting communities. Commenting on how Iraq’s winning of the Asian Cup ‘unified’ the warring tribes of Iraq, former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, wrote a piece published in the City Press: “Just think of how the Iraqi national soccer team’s winning of the Asian Cup in 2007 sparked scenes of jubilation in every community of that otherwise torn country. The team which included Sunnis, Shi’as and Kurds showed their fellow citizens – and the world as a whole – what could be achieved by working together.” As commendable as the Iraq victory was, has it drastically changed the status quo in Iraq as we speak? No! This is precisely why the World Cup will not have as huge an impact as far as the bread and butter issues of South Africa are concerned. Soccer is too convenient a platform to meet at without having to sacrifice and divorce with one’s comfort zones and that’s why we saw people from all classes, races, sexual orientations, genders and forth braving cold nights standing in long lines waiting to purchase not only a World Cup ticket but as FIFA puts it, a piece of ‘history’. In the South African context the World Cup is, without trivialising its significance, at best is a form of escapism from the crude realities which visit many a people especially those located in the lower economic strata sphere. FIFA in its pursuit of a picture perfect African Wolrd Cup refused to have Athlone Stadium to be used as the venue of choice in Cape Town because of the undesirable shacks that are part and parcel of the South African experience and therefore insisted that a brand new multi billion stadium be built instead with the sea as its captivating background. The convenience of converging on sporting arenas was also witnessed when the Blue Bulls played the Crusaders and Stormers in the semis and finals of Super 14 rugby cup respectively at Orlando Stadium in Soweto. We cheered the decision to take a rugby match to a township as a sign of ‘reconciliation’ but anyone who knows the real story will tell you that the match was moved to Orlando because the Bulls’ home ground –Loftus Versfeld- was one of the 3 stadiums in Gauteng to be used for the World Cup and FIFA had made it clear that a month before the tournament it wished to have to control of the said stadiums.
As long as we rely on sport events to solve socio economic which require political and economic frankness, we will always expose ourselves to more disappointment. It’s all beautiful for the various races of the Republic to hug and kiss and defend the vuvuzela against foreign silencing but when the dust of the euphoria settles the moneyed of our country board their gautrains and the working class board their not so reliant Metrorail trains. The exposure and marketing that this spectacle has brought to the country is invaluable but if the spoils from the said tournament don’t eradicate the many inhumane and unhealthy bucket system toilets and aren’t used to bring to parity the ever widening inequality gaps of this conflicting but united country, then the efforts of using the World Cup as some sort of National Unifier will be known as the’ 90minutes patriotism’ as was the victories of the 1995 Rugby World Cup by the Springboks and Bafana Bafana’s 1996 African Cup of Nations, respectively.