Picture: Yoan Valat / EPA / Taken on October 28, 2023 – South Africa captain Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis trophy after the team won the Rugby World Cup 2023 final between New Zealand and South Africa in Saint-Denis, France. South Africa is a sporting nation. As it transitioned into a new political dispensation in the 1990s, the new political leadership envisioned sport as one of the avenues to unite the people of South Africa, the writer says.
By Bheki Mngomezulu
There is a direct link between sport and politics. By its very nature, race is a political phenomenon. South Africa is no exception in this regard. Under the apartheid regime, sport was organised along racial lines. Sporting codes such as rugby, cricket, hockey, tennis and a few others were almost entirely white sporting codes. Soccer was dominated by black people.
The government of the day ensured that even in cases where various racial groups played the same sport, the clubs and federations were formed on racial lines. It was in this context that the South African Council on Sport boycotted sport and adopted the slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society”. For them, the political leadership had to use sport to unite the nation and bridge the racial divide.
As the country transitioned into the new political dispensation at the dawn of democracy, the new political leadership envisioned sport as one of the avenues that could be used to unite the people of South Africa. This view was premised on the understanding that South Africa was a sporting nation.
Deriving inspiration from this belief, Nelson Mandela argued that “sport has the power to change the world”. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” He was right. Used correctly, sport has the potential to achieve all these goals and bridge the racial and political divide.
Used wrongly, sport can also divide the nation. This is what happened during apartheid as alluded to above.
The recent victory by South Africa’s rugby team (Amabhokobhoko) when it successfully defended the Webb Ellis Cup in France, has reminded us as a nation about the power of sport to bridge the racial and political divide.
There have been many episodes when sport demonstrated its ability to unite the nation. In 1995, soon after South Africa ceased to be a pariah state, Amabhokobhoko made history when they became the first team under the new political order to win an international tournament.
Mandela donned the Springboks jersey and lifted the Cup in front of an elated crowd in Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The nation celebrated this victory together.
Not to be outshone, the South African national soccer team (Bafana Bafana) united the country once again by winning the Africa Cup of Nations in a packed FNB Stadium in 1996. Once again, the nation was united across racial and party lines.
These two victories were precursors to a major event – the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup which was hosted by South Africa in 2010. The fact that this was the first and thus far the only soccer World Cup to be held on African soil was a miracle. South Africans across the racial and political divide were united before and during this world spectacle.
The Springboks made their contribution again in 2007 and in 2019 when they won the Webb Ellis Cup. Even those South Africans who had no interest in rugby suddenly found themselves following the sport and buying the Springbok jersey.
When Banyana Banyana or the Cricket Proteas teams win in their respective games, the nation comes together. These and other incidents confirm Mandela’s views about the power of sport.
But while our players continue to make their contribution toward nation-building and social cohesion, such unity is not sustained. In between these victories, incidents of racial discrimination and political intolerance have continued unabated.
In Mpumalanga, white men placed a black man in a coffin and threatened to bury him alive. This was a clear sign of racism. Several incidents were reported of white people shooting at black people and claiming that they mistook them for monkeys or even hippos.
Penny Sparrow who died in 2019 left a bad legacy following her tweet in which she likened black people at the Durban beaches to monkeys.
What a shame! There is a stark difference between these animals and human beings. When we thought that we had heard enough, another white businessman who operated at Mbazwana in northern KwaZulu-Natal unashamedly stated that in his lodge business, he did not serve black people.
These are some of the incidents which demonstrate that while it is true that sport has the power to unite the nation, such unity must be sustained, otherwise it is short-lived.
Therefore, as the nation celebrates the Springboks victory and puts aside racial and political differences, we should not be complacent. There is more work that needs to be done to unite our people. The current momentum must be kept and all of us must pull together to render both racial and political divisions obsolete.
Prof Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at the Nelson Mandela University.