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Are we really winning in using sport to unite, uplift nation?

Published Nov 14, 2023


Mphumzi Mdekazi

In a compelling analysis of identity and nationhood in post-apartheid South Africa published shortly after the country's hosting of the 2010 World Cup, South African sociologist Neville Alexander provocatively posed a question.

He asked whether the country’s recent political trajectories suggested that “a new historical community” was being fashioned – one in which the racial divisions of the apartheid past had been transcended, the liberation ideals of class and other equalities had been attained, and a cohesive national South African identity prevailed.

Certainly, the 2010 World Cup appeared to be the occasion for just that – media images beamed across the world showed South Africans from all racial, ethnic and class backgrounds collectively and proudly displaying the national flag, blowing the ubiquitous “vuvuzela” and stoically supporting the national team, Bafana Bafana.

Media portrayals reinforced a government rhetoric that underlined the “cosmetic” unity and modernity of post-apartheid South Africa. From the perspective of the government, certainly, the World Cup represented the pinnacle of the achievements of the rainbow nation after 1994.

The positive assessments of the nation building momentum of the large sport tournament were countered by critical appraisals from several public figures and intellectuals who questioned the longevity or even authenticity of the feel-good sentiment evoked by the event.

Alexander himself doubted the real utility of the event for a society marked by racial conflict and deepening economic inequalities that, for him, nullified any progress towards the “creative and constructive future” envisioned in the early post-apartheid years.

Others lamented elaborate spending on a grand spectacle which “is not a metaphor of the historical triumph over adversity, of South Africa’s (or Africa’s) ‘renaissance’ or of a positive ‘developmental legacy’. It is rather a hugely costly and ultimately ephemeral exercise in myth-making”. Yet others saw in the triumphalist popular celebrations and euphoria during the tournament “a false nationhood” with little content or political mainstay.

Whatever the socio-economic or socio-cultural legacies of the World Cup, the debates about what impacts the tournament will leave on the political consciousness of South Africans are significant because they reflect a long-standing intellectual problematic debates – on how to grasp the dynamics between sport, politics and identity in the country and how to understand the role that sport has historically played in societal processes.

Many who are old enough would know that among the efforts towards building egalitarian and social cohesion was Makhenkesi Stofile’s singular boycott of the All Blacks versus the Springboks, because the team wasn’t reflective of South African demographic features. He succeeded – the game was not played.

Khenkie/Bra Stof, as he was known by that sobriquet, especially by those who were fond of him, persistently and diagnostically painted a picture of the country’s balance of forces at the time.

Reflecting on his annual report, he said: “The time for an assessment of the road travelled and also to provide direction for the way forward has arrived.”

He noted that sport played an integral role in the balance of forces in any country. He went further to say: “Fespite sport competing for public resources with many other worthy causes, his department would not tire in its attempts to persuade the Cabinet to maximise access, to pursue rural sports development, build sports infrastructure, enhance drug free sports, promote school sports and excellence at all levels of participation”.

He told members of Parliament that his department was encouraged that the success of the School Mass Participation Programme had increased participation in sport as well as developed sport champions from grass-roots level. At the same time, the department was mindful that many children were organically excluded from participating in the elite sport. For that reason, stakeholders were called to work together to intensify the development of sport and to deliver support to learners who displayed talent. This was a firm foundation for many black South African athletes.

Articulating the position of the ANC on sports from the watershed 2007 Polokwane conference, he was concerned about the commercialisation of sports, and highlighted that it needed to be regulated. I cannot say he or the ANC that deployed him at that time forestalled that one day, the Springboks would be hosted by a private citizen in a private property in Stellenbosch, with national symbols that are by extension national assets. Bra Stof, however, vociferously bemoaned the privatisation, monopolisation and commercialisation of sport as far back as 2008.

He was futuristically doing this to potentially protect those who are known to be pliable on capture, and also extrapolating Alexander’s discomfort about the state of “concrete social cohesion” in South Africa. Stofile and Alexander could smell the insatiable desire from some within the ANC who were prepared and over-committed in pleasing the historical oppressors at the expense of long-term interests of the “natives”. His epistemological thread was that rugby belonged to South African government, not private hands.

In Stofile’s account, a white athlete was once funded seven times more than a black athlete. Ask yourself what the white protagonists of sport did to change that towards black athletes. Do we trust our historical oppressors about our liberation through sport?

When presenting his budget, he had told Parliament, quoting from Albert Luthuli, that “the Black Ox” can no longer eat in isolation from others. He was firmly connoting that due to the demographic features of the country, it was not sickness to have as many Siya Kolisis as as possible inside the field of play, hence the vigorous advocation of mass participation and school sport programme at that time because these were complementary dimensions in giving birth to what we are celebrating today.

The Springbok’s victory is traceable to his firm foundation, especially for black children.

Many, without laying any foundation or doing anything tangible for the development of sport for black children, would predictably and unduly claim certain credits today on the strength of other people’s long-term visions and hard work. This call goes beyond sports. Today’s efforts must address Alexander’s discomfort on the state of today’s fragile social cohesion, with all its inherent problems. Eighty minutes patriotism in France on the field of play and anything that comes with it doesn’t necessarily grow food to kill poverty, doesn’t ease petrol hikes, doesn’t bring back the land and substantially equalise society. If it did, we would have been glued by the 1995 and 2010 World Cups.

Maybe it is time the current minister of sport shares with the nation his barometer on how we have faired. Are we cohesively winning with the “uniting” force of sport as an instrument from 1995 to date? This is to check if we are managing the nation judiciously, as the legendary African scholar, John Henry Clark, demands of all Africans.

Mphumzi Mdekazi is an ANC member from Boland Region, AB Xuma Branch, Western Cap. He writes in his personal capacity.

The Star