The potency of sport in uniting nations

Bafana showed resilience coming back from one goal down to snatch a draw via a goal by Percy Tau at the death against Paraguay. Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

The euphoria of having qualified for the first time since 2013 for the African Cup of Nations 2019 (AFCON) in Egypt had hardly worn off; and the headline hit me: President rewards Taifa Stars’ players with land for their second ever AFCON qualification! President John Magufuli was expressing gratitude to his national team, after their 3-0 victory over neighbouring Uganda. ‘For the good work you have done to bring honour to Tanzania by qualifying for AFCON finals in Egypt, each player will get a parcel of land in Dodoma (the administrative capital)’, he told the players and the technical team at State House in Dar es Salaam.

That is the potency of sport in uniting nations. Take South Africa, shortly after the 1994 elections; when our newly found freedom had us on tenterhooks. We faced the risk of relapse. President Nelson Mandela turned a mere rugby tournament into the nation’s glue. Traditionally a white Afrikaner sport, rugby was resented by the majority of black sport lovers in South Africa. This was not because it was a lousy game but because it had been associated with the racist establishment before independence. Madiba risked his political career to allow the Springboks keep the hated emblem. He then made it his business to understand the basics of the game and become number one  fan of Francois Pienaar’s team.

By the time the 1995 Rugby World Cup (RWC) was underway, South Africans were united around the green and gold of Amabokoko. Where most of us saw 15 players at a time on an unfamiliar pitch tossing a funny-looking ball, Madiba wanted the tens of millions of people to watch us go all the way. He was not about to forego the precious chance to heal our historical racial divisions. 2019 is somewhat like 1995. South Africa just turned the corner, entering a rebuilding phase to reclaim its glory. Though Madiba years were not perfect they oozed possibility and hope. We had just dodged the bullet of civil war and zero-sum politics. Fairly deep into the build-up to the first democratic elections our country skating on civil war prospects and hostel killings. Its appeal to international investors was dicey and apartheid debt was weighing it down fatally.

The expectations of young militant South Africans, lots without education, were eroding the ground on which the negotiated settlement was founded. We had Madiba in the Union Buildings, but separate development had planted us so far apart from each other that our probability of raising a unified nation was slim. Boardrooms and factory floors were run by the white minority, overseeing the highly unionised black workforce – hung over on centuries of labour relations mired in slave-like working conditions.

White suburbs, closer to places of work for black workers who stayed in far-flung townships, hostels and villages, were maintained by black underpaid domestic workers and garden ‘boys’. South Africa, in the words of Madiba at his presidential inauguration, was suffering the enduring ‘indignity of being the skunk of the world’. He had implored us all to work towards making sure that ‘this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another’, but reality in the shacks and our poor slums craved proof of the right magnitude that his were more than just words.

So, when the final whistle blew in Sfax, Tunisia, where our national soccer team had beaten Libya to earn their slot among the 24 nations that will compete for continental honours in Egypt in June, it was shocking to find South Africans happy to still haggle over petty club-versus-club gimmicks. If there is something South African soccer fans can do, especially those of Orlando Pirates against their Kaizer Chiefs rivals, it is trolling each other. Bordering on haughtiness, their mutual hatred and disrespect soured what should have been a national celebration and sully the momentum in the Bafana Bafana camp.

If Brand South Africa is out there selling us as a united nation, we cannot be fighting over which team has how many players in the squad. For example, the issue of long-time goalkeeper being injured and whether he should eventually retire came to the fore again. Anyone who watched the South Africa-Libya match will attest to the pivotal role played by Wits University goal-minder Darren Keet in keeping us in the competition. Defeat would have knocked us off the list of 24; but Keet was the difference.

Brand South Africa is asking us all to be inspired, including finding new ways to evaluate the performance of our national teams. Our social media chats, instead of celebrating the 2-1 victory and eventual qualification, negates the spirit of building the brand called South Africa. Some Pirates fans were calling for the firing of the injured Itumeleng Khune. Some Chiefs fans were undermining the match-saving performance by Keet; who probably grew up in soccer idolising Khune.

Our failure to realise that when Bafana Bafana plays, all the members of the squad represent South Africa – not their narrow club interest – threatens our opportunity to use sport once again to psyche ourselves into winning ways. This narrow-mindedness also surfaced ominously when Sundowns competed for the 2016 CAF Champions League. What we overlook in prioritising narrow club interests over the nation is that we winners love winners. What our national soccer team craves between now and the final match in Egypt come June/July is our unqualified faith and support. The players on that squad are us – not Pirates, Sundowns or Arrows, but South Africa.

Just as we did when we won more than a rugby tournament against the All Blacks to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy at Ellis Park in 1995 and the AFCON 1996, we better not waste this golden shot at renewed national cohesion around AFCON 2019, come June. In fact, for the brand South Africa – citizens ought to be hard at work forming a human shield around Bafana Bafana – and, by extension, our quest to rekindle our country’s greatness.

Victor Kgomoeswana is the author of Africa is Open for Business; a media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs.