Over the last 150 days we have learned much about the power of the habitual in post-millennial, post-apartheid South Africa. We have heard it in the grumbling, cavilling, quarrelling and grousing about the logic (or lack of) of government decrees. We have also seen it in the defiance of logic among the many bourgeois folks who mistook their entitlement for rights, whether to go running, do yoga on the beach, surf, get takeaway coffees, or to purchase items subjected to restricted trade… We saw it in the contradictory messages relayed by official government channels, in the conflict between some experts advising government, between government officials and such experts, and in the ways in which opposition parties contradicted themselves as they opposed government proclamations.
It started last week on the day of Bafana Bafana’s second game against Uruguay when I was filling up my car at the petrol station. A white woman – silver haired, well groomed, about 70 years old – was busy having her shiny new Mercedes (some class or the other) filled up as well. She was wearing a yellow and green Bafana Bafana shirt. Her car was adorned with the ridiculous South African flag mirror socks and two South African flags attached to the back windows.
The petrol attendant – distinguished grey beard, high cheekbones, yellow Makarapa of the petrol company on his head – bantered with her about Bafana’s chances. Attending to her car, he started singing the national anthem in a loud but beautiful voice. The old women joined in, her thin but solid voice harmonizing with his deep baritone. They sang the whole anthem, including those bits about “die blou van onse hemel” and “let us live and strive for freedom in South Africa our land”.
Everybody stared and smiled and nodded to each other. Some clapped and whistled. I wiped away the tears and had one of those incredibly naive and romantic but rather trite thoughts: Why can’t we live like this all the time?
Since then, Bafana had lost disastrously and won proudly and had crashed out of the World Cup. But I am still wondering about that moment and what to make of all this emotion around the World Cup. Does Zackie Achmat have a point when he says he refuses to wave the South African (or any other country’s) flag because it is inherently nationalistic and problematic? On the Writing Rights Blog he writes:
Racism, chauvinism and nationalism have always been part of the seedy underbelly of sport. I have flown flags in the past. They were flags that expressed my political views: the ANC flag symbolising the Freedom Charter when the party was banned; the red flag of socialism and the rainbow flag to signify equality for all. Today, World Cup nationalism in South Africa hides our xenophobia and it pretends that racial and class tensions do not exist.
Zackie is, of course, correct when he warns that the World Cup nationalism won’t erase the tensions, contradictions and injustices in our society. Nationalism, even the relatively benign nationalism associated with hosting the World Cup, may well be used to paper over the cracks and may allow some people to pretend that racism, sexism, poverty, corruption, greed and the arrogance of the rich do not exist in our country.
Holding hands and singing Kumbaja (or the national anthem) while cheering on 22 players on a pitch chasing a round ball will not end the deeply ingrained distrust, the pockets of arrogance and prejudice, the deep divisions based on class, race and ethnicity that exist in our land.
And yet…. and yet… I want to hang on to the magic of that moment at the petrol station.
This does not mean I wish to give the crooks at Fifa a free ride. It does not mean I want to stop being critical about what is wrong in our society and that I do not believe one must continue to look for ways to address those wrongs. Neither does it mean that I want to forget the past or that I believe that it is really possible to engage in constructive dialogue with people whose unacknowledged racism and colonial attitudes I find very difficult not to name – even when I am accused of “labeling” people.
I want to hang on to that magic moment because it suggests to me that apart from the political mobilization, the resistance and the day to day struggle of individuals and organisations, something else can also make a difference (no matter how small) and can also contribute to the creation of a better and more just society.
The World Cup nationalism, so it seems to me, has produced that “something else”. It has allowed some people from different races and classes and ideological persuasions to see each other as human beings and to connect with each other as human beings – not as representatives of their race or class. We are all people who eat and sleep, who love and hate and even have sex, who laugh and cry, who want to be accepted and want to be loved. Yes, we are not all the same. Our material interests and cultural assumptions often differ. But we have much in common, too, merely because we are human beings.
It’s probably naive to think that moments like this will change racists into non-racial social justice campaigners, that it will change greedy and corrupt politicians into upright citizens who care about the vulnerable and the marginalized. But maybe a few people will remember moments like the one I experienced last week at the petrol station the next time they want to make sweeping generalizations about people because they happen to be white or black, rich or poor (I am an optimist, after all, as well as an incorrigible romantic).
Hey, it’s not much, but its enough for me.BACK TO TOP