2010: South Africa’s great leap forward

8 June 2010

An extraordinary thing happened recently in the famous chamber of London’s cavernous Royal Albert Hall.

With 21 days to go before South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, eight South African stand-up comedians representing a kaleidoscope of the country’s racial diversity kept an overwhelmingly South African audience of more than 3 000 doubled up with laughter for three side-splitting hours.

The show, called Bafunny Bafunny – a word-play on the nickname of SA’s national soccer team, Bafana Bafana (the boys) – was an irreverent attempt to build enthusiasm for the world’s largest sporting event among South Africa’s largest expatriate community – sometimes referred to as the tenth province of South Africa.

Promoting social cohesion

It was catharsis of the kind that has been kindled – and could be fast-forwarded – by the national convergence and unity of purpose thrust on South Africans by hosting the world’s largest and most diverse sporting event.

“The hosting of the 2010 World Cup will change the way the world sees South Africa and the African continent forever,” says President Jacob Zuma, who kicked a mean soccer ball himself while serving time for resistance to apartheid on South Africa’s notorious, Alcatraz-like Robben Island prison.

Just as the 2006 World Cup had Germans smiling, drinking beer and waving the national flag en masse for the first time in 60 years, so the first African World Cup in South Africa could have an equally dramatic effect on promoting social cohesion in a country with a lingering legacy of deep racial inequality.

Inside the Royal Albert Hall, there were two gigantic South African flags on either side of the massive organ and nothing to remind one that you were sitting in the heart of London’s prime venue.

The crowd, a tiny fraction of the estimated 600 000 South Africans in the UK, was mobilised by word-of-mouth and without a single advertisement in mainstream media.

Trevor Noah, Nick Rabinowitz, Loyiso Gola, Mark Lottering, John Vlismas, Kagiso Ledega, Mark Banks and Barry Hilton took the gloves off with slick, witty and hugely varied performances.

Their repartee – peppered with four-letter words – slaughtered a series of favourite targets: Fifa, the fiery ANC youth leader Julius Malema, the police shoot-first policy, violent crime, and the biggest and most sensitive no-go area of all: race.

The targeting of Malema was a moment of truth for the young democracy.

After a protracted and heated public debate in April and May, the top disciplinary committee of the ruling African National Congress sanctioned Malema, inter alia, for singing an old liberation song which calls on its cadres to “kill a Boer” after it had been ruled to constitute hate speech by the courts.

Boer was the label used to define conservative Afrikaans-speaking South Africans as the enemy during the apartheid era. The ANC has lodged an appeal against the ruling.

At the height of the row, a half-forgotten extreme right-wing Boer leader, Eugene Terreblanche (whose name means “white earth” in the language of his French ancestors), was murdered by two black farm workers. The stark reality of the here and now confronted the young democracy.

How do you justify a song coveted by one group of South Africans when it calls for the killing of members of another? Do you laugh or cry?

‘It’s here. Can you feel it?’

At the Royal Albert Hall on 20th May, the only tears to be found were those generated by excessive laughter.

For three hours, a diverse audience of South Africans laughed at themselves, at each other and with each other at things that many could not talk about outside the comfort zone of their racial or cultural groups even a few years ago.

In recent months, South Africans of all races have been donning Bafana shirts on Fridays, flying the national flag from their car windows, wrapping their rear-view mirrors in socks sporting the national flag, and chanting slogans about Africa’s time has come and: “It’s here. Can you feel it?”

There is a rare inclusive outpouring of patriotic fervour.

As the row about the noisy but uniquely African trumpet – known as a vuvuzela (Zulu for noise) – is debated on breakfast television shows at home and abroad, South Africans are undergoing a seismic shift in terms of social cohesion and identity which is set to be galvanised by hosting the 2010 World Cup.

White South Africans, in the past wedded to rugby while soccer was and remains an overwhelmingly black sport, are starting to take ownership of the national team and willing it to victory despite its low international ranking.

As the finishing touches are given to five awesome new stadiums, three transformed airports and a range of new transport and access routes, the level of national excitement is palpable.

Estimates of foreign arrivals have come down significantly since the build-up began, which will mean that far more South Africans will get a seat at the stadiums.

And there is a healthy ongoing debate about whether the large numbers of poor and unemployed South Africans will benefit from the expenditure of some US$5-billion on stadiums and related infrastructure.

The physical benefits for the country’s economic infrastructure are there for all to see.

But the most enduring benefactor of the World Cup will be the national psyche and the quest for a common national identity to transcend a deeply divided past.

As former President Thabo Mbeki said when he spoke at the handing over ceremony in Berlin in 2006, the German World Cup succeeded in restoring some of Germany’s self-respect after its legacy of national socialism.

“We are confident that the 2010 soccer World Cup will do the same to consolidate our self-respect and dignity gained when we attained our freedom and democracy in 1994 and, in a unique way, also help our own nation and the continent of Africa,” Mbeki said.

Legacy and reconciliation

Bafana Captain Aaron Mokoena, even before the World Cup began, has taken the lead in ensuring that the legacy of the 2010 World Cup will benefit future generations of soccer players.

A year ago he launched the Aaron Mokoena Foundation, which will ensure that those who were denied an opportunity in the past will benefit from the coaching and mentoring services the Foundation will provide; initially in the sprawling townships south of Johannesburg, including his home town of Boipatong in Sedibeng.

“The future of the country is in the hands of the youth,” said Mokoena. “I want to make a contribution to ensure that they have the opportunity to reach for the stars.”

An initiative such as John Perlman’s Dreamfields project is ensuring that thousands of would-be soccer players are getting access to kit and playing fields, often in the most remote rural reaches of the country.

Local Organising committing CEO, Danny Jordaan, who has become synonymous with the World Cup, sees the staging of the event as a culmination of the anti-apartheid struggle which so effectively used sport to defeat apartheid.

In 1995, former President Nelson Mandela used the rugby World Cup as a means of galvanising conservative white support for the country’s first black majority government. The story has been movingly told in the book Invictus by John Carlin and the film of the same name starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Mandela was also instrumental in securing the Fifa World Cup for South Africa.

“Reconciliation is an important aim of the World Cup.” Jordaan told the Independent on Sunday. “We want to make this country better and more united and I think we will achieve that.”

“It will chart a new course in our country’s history,” he said.

This article was first published in the Christian Science Monitor (online) and republished on ReConnect Africa.

John Battersby is a former southern Africa correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor and a former editor of the Sunday Independent in Johannesburg. He is co-author of Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs published by Sterling in the United States in January 2010. Battersby is a trustee of the Aaron Mokoena Foundation.