Though I somewhat remember them, I was too young to truly appreciate how momentous our first democratic elections were in 1994, or how South Africa united behind the Springboks during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. For me, never had I seen South Africans be as one as they were during the Football World-Cup. At twelve noon on the 9th of June, South Africa ground to a halt and the world was introduced to the now ubiquitous sound of the 2010 Football World Cup, the vuvuzela. Though World Cup euphoria had been gripping the nation for a while prior to that moment, for me, it was only in that moment that I realised just how big of a deal the World Cup was going to be. The World Cup of course was all about the football, however, but for South Africans, the most memorable aspect of it was the sense of unity we felt. As Jackie Janse Van Rensburg, commented on a previous blog post, “to me, it was never about the game per se, I love the vibe, the unity, the pride, the positivity we have been experiencing.”
The evening of Bafana-Bafana’s encounter against Uruguay, a tweet disapproving of a comment made by CNN anchor, Hala Gorani, on air, made it’s way onto my timeline on Twitter, it said,
“Hala Gorani (#CNN) just reported that the sense of unity in SA ‘won’t last.’ WTH?!”Despite my initial response to the World Cup, by then, as everyone else was, I was fully ‘feeling it,’ and commented on that tweet with a single word, “disappointed.” I was more than a little surprised to get a response from Hala Gorani who elucidated on her statement saying,
“Wrong. I said the World Cup excitement that unifies a country (as it did in France) naturally dissipates after the event is over.”Basking in the glow of a World Cup successfully going off without a hitch; surrounded by the honking of vuvuzela’s; high on pre-match euphoria at that moment, forgetting all my pre-World Cup scepticism I admit, I immediately discarded the comment as nothing more than Western pessimism. Looking at what has been going on recently in South Africa, I could not have been more unfair and wrong, Hala Gorani was right, that spirit has dissipated.
When I first started writing this blog, I fully intended to lament this as a sad regression. Nevertheless, three weeks after starting it, I could not finish it. I wish I could chalk this up to ‘writers block,’ but I cannot, the reason I could not write it, was that I did not think this was a bad thing. In all the excitement over the World Cup, the enjoyment of the spirit of for the first time ever seeing what South African’s can accomplish when united as one nation, I forgot something that I’d always believed in; nationalism is anything but positive. Like many governments, the Apartheid regime used ‘nationalism,’ as a justification for many of its crimes, therefore that in democratic South Africa we have always shied away from that moniker is hardly surprising.
Patriotism, national pride, a spirit of ubuntu, call it what you will, it is nationalism. The very thing that those in power throughout history and the world over have used to corral their people from the most ridiculous of actions, to the most heinous of crimes. This is not at all an original thought on my part; wherever nationalism raised its ugly head, there have been those far more erudite than myself who have made this argument. Albert Einstein for example said, “Nationalism is an infantile disease… it is the measles of mankind,” or even more succinctly, William Blum who wrote, “If love is blind, patriotism has lost all five senses.”
Many would say that the national pride that we experienced in South Africa is different, that we spearheaded it, not following any directive. To have pride in yourself, or something that you can ascribe to being part of is natural to people, that’s why we’re proud of ourselves, our families, of our cultural groupings, that’s why we move to being proud of ourselves as a nation, even with no real push from governments. However, that in itself is the very insidious nature of nationalism. It does not necessarily have to start as something that those in charge have created, but they invariably turn back and draw on it for their own purposes.
This may seem far-fetched but it is happening. As it became clear that a strike was inevitable, the government not only began to portray workers as ill-informed on their offer, and thus irresponsible in their threat to strike, but also as unpatriotic, or for instance, in the arrest of Mzilikazi wa Afrika, the calls from the ANCYL for him to be charged with high treason. Before we all comfortably sit back and say, but nobody took either of those instances seriously, angered at Mzilikazi wa Afrika’s ‘counter-revolutionary’ articles, consider the crowd, who forced him to have to exit from the rear of the courthouse when released on bail. They may be easily dismissed; after all, they are just rabid ANC supporters with no true understanding of our constitutional values but then how many people, how many of us, when the strike started immediately commented on how this was destroying the great national spirit we had built up during the World Cup? The two examples may seem utterly antipodean, but how can that be when they are both linked by calls to the ‘greater good of national unity.’
Yes, the national pride that we had was a heady joy. For someone like myself, for whom South Africa had always been a nation of people constantly at each others throats, and I imagine even for those who remember the 1994 elections, or Francois Pienaar lifting the Rugby World Cup trophy with Nelson Mandela by his side, it was amazing to see us all standing together for one common cause. Be that as it may, that has passed, and though it’s more than natural for us to feel despondent to see ourselves returning to the way we were, I’d rather things be this way. I wish I could see it another way, write it away in a lovely fashion, but the fact is, without that spirit of national unity we are an ugly nation. We have seen ourselves at our worst in the last couple of weeks with the Press debates, and the strike. Nevertheless, amidst all that ugliness, we have seen ourselves at our best; not waving a flag, blowing on a vuvuzela or proudly singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, but rather mopping the floors in a deserted hospital. I would hope that this was not because of national pride, or patriotism, but because of something far more simple, something not innate in South Africans only, but innate in humanity as a whole I would like to think; because it was the right thing to do.