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A nation united — for now

Shakeman Mugari


JOHANNESBURG — The year was 1994 and South Africa’s democracy, barely a few months old, was in grave danger.

Apartheid had ended after 46 brutal years of segregation and repression to usher a new era of democracy but the country was tottering on the brink of a civil war.

Bloody clashes between whites and blacks had left hundreds dead.

White extremist groups were mobilising an armed insurrection against Nelson Mandela’s government.

In the townships blacks had turned the streets into war zones, slaying each other in inter-party violence.

The burden to unite the deeply divided nation fell naturally on Mandela as the country’s first democratically elected president and to do that he chose the most improbable platform — rugby.

But in doing so he had chosen a toxic mix: Mandela himself was a symbol of black resistance but he was trying to use rugby, a symbol of the apartheid rule that blacks hated with a passion, to heal the nation.

“One team, one nation” was the theme of Mandela’s campaign as he rallied support for the Springboks, the national rugby team, ahead of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

The gamble paid off, at least in stopping the country’s descent into violence and putting the people on a path towards reconciliation.

The Springboks became a national symbol that united blacks and whites.

“Nelson, Nelson, Nelson,” chanted the crowd of black and white as he walked into the stadium after the team’s epic victory over New Zealand.

“We didn’t have the support of 63 000 South Africans today. We had the support of 42 million South Africans,” said Springboks captain Francois Piennar to illustrate how the country had united around the team.

John Carlin, an American journalist who covered South Africa in the early 1990s, has written a book about this momentous event describing it as the game that “saved” the nation.

Fast-forward 16 years later to the 2010 World Cup and you see South Africans exuding the same euphoria of togetherness.

This time it is soccer — a sport still considered black — that has brought the people together.

Their team might have been dumped out of the tournament in the first round but South Africans still don their national colours.

South African flags hang on walls in the mansions in predominantly white areas like Sandton and shanty houses in areas like Kliptown where blacks live in squalid conditions.

They hang their national flags on their battered Volkswagens and expensive porches.

For once, it would seem South Africans have forgotten that their country is still largely divided between black and white.

For a moment they seem to have forgotten that their country is still divided between the rich and poor.

It would seem that for once blacks are not moaning about the gap between the rich and poor, and how their living conditions have remained appalling and at times worsened 16 years after independence.

Whites, it would seem, are not screaming about being systematically marginalised by the black government through affirmative action.

The coloureds are not feeling left out as they usually do.

“For once we are together,” says Rachel Mkhonza, a 58-year-old grandmother of two who has lived in Kliptown for the past 15 years.

The house she shares with her two grandchildren and husband is a hovel but Mkhonza says she is happy that the World Cup is here.

“I feel I am part of South Africa again,” she says.

The feeling of togetherness is mutual in affluent areas of Johannesburg.

“We are enjoying the moment together,” says François Bys, a white businessman who lives in the upper middle-class suburb of Rosebank.

“We are united,” says Jullie Filander who lives in Westbury, a predominantly coloured suburb not far from the city centre.

Such is the power of sports to bring people together.

Yet in the midst of this intense euphoria questions are now being asked whether this sense of togetherness will survive beyond July 11 when the World Cup ends.

Answers are diametrically different.

There are those who are optimistic like Bishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Prize laureate who has preached peace and justice since the apartheid era.

“The World Cup might work towards bringing people together in an atmosphere that has been divided,” Bishop Tutu says.

He draws his inspiration from the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

“The 1995 Rugby World Cup saw many blacks celebrating in Soweto,” he adds.

“Although many people may not have understood the game, they were happy for the outcome, an illustration of sport’s extraordinary capacity to unite people.”



There are others who are cynical like Horatio Motjuwadi, the acting editor of The Sowetan daily newspaper.

“After this (World Cup) South Africa will be back to normal, the same divided nation,” Motjuwadi says.

“Where are we going? Nowhere — literally and metaphorically,” wrote Zola Maseko, an independent filmmaker, in an article in the Mail & Guardian newspaper about the World Cup.

“It is safe to conclude that we South Africans are not really one united nation.”

People who share Motjuwadi and Maseko’s views point to the past 16 years to illustrate that the country is still far from being united.

Sixteen years after independence South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world.

About 21 million of the country’s 49 million people still live below the United Nation’s poverty datum line of US$2 a day.

The income disparities are glaring especially along racial lines.

Although the government has made great strides to build houses, millions still live in squatter camps that have no schools, hospitals and running water.

Shack dwellers, who are mostly blacks, believe the government has not done enough to pull them out of the dungeon of poverty.

The World Cup projects created jobs but a quarter of the population is still unemployed.

“Our government has neglected us,” says Nozuko Mlambo, a mother of two who lives in Kliptown.

“The rich have become richer while the poor have become poorer,” she adds.

The belief that change is not coming soon enough feeds this frustration among most black South Africans who believe that the government must help them out of poverty.

“We feel the World Cup but we are hungry,” says Nozuko.

It’s not only the blacks who are frustrated.

Whites feel that they are being sidelined from jobs and lucrative contracts because of the government’s affirmative action policies which they say favour blacks.

“I can’t get government contracts because I am white,” says François Bys.

“I know a lot of qualified white friends who can’t get jobs because they are white”.

There is also animosity between the poor blacks and the rich blacks who have moved up the social ladder.

The poor believe the rich blacks are beneficiaries of corruption and cronyism they say is perpetuated by the government. Coloureds feel that they are also being marginalised because they are “not black enough”.

“During apartheid we were not white enough but after independence we are being told that we are not black enough,” says Alfred Rass.

Literally every social group has its list of grievances against the country and the government.

Inequality is what divides South Africans, says Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior researcher with the Centre for Policy Studies.

“There are many things that still divide us as a nation and these still need to be addressed if South Africa is going to be built on the momentum already created by this World Cup,” he says.

He explains that only “when our people have equal access to jobs, health, education and other social amenities can we start seeing the progress”.

The World Cup shows that there are things that can unite South Africans, he adds.

“South Africa needs to channel this feeling into other national endeavours like nation-building and bridging the gap between the rich and the poor,” Matshiqi says.

“Reconciliation is like building a house and to South Africa the World Cup is just one of the many bricks you need.”

The leaders seem to have realised the power of sports because South Africa is already bidding to host the 2020 Olympics.

Perhaps when the games do come to South Africa in a decade’s time the leaders of this country would have corrected past mistakes and addressed current problems that make people question the sustainability and realness of their unity.

Maybe by then South Africans will not need huge sporting events like the World Cup to show that they are a united country.

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