Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Unity of The World Cup Is Gone & We’re The Better For It

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.


  1. I miss the unity too, but you are right it does tend to distract people from the fact that South Africa has some ugly issues that aren't going to just go away.

  2. Thanks for the great insight. A really thought-provoking post!

  3. Thanks for the comments guys, was rather worried that what I was trying to say wouldn’t come across clearly.

  4. the last paragraph of your blog is superior to the rest. the simplicity and sincerity of the example surpasses the content prior. the article is stylish, eloquent and articulate. However, the general approach/ stance of the article appears pretty much the same as various other commentary on the topic, from your individual pov of course. That said, the energy and heartfelt sentiment captured in the final paragraph is something, merely in my opinion, you could perhaps hone and let illuminate. because it is beautiful. you could do a lot of justice to ideas of such a nature.

  5. Thanks for the comment Sarita. With millions of people writing on any given topic it’s impossible to have an entirely original thought, everything, somewhere, has been written on.

    As ‘beautiful’ as it may be, heartfelt sentiment isn’t a basis for an argument. That’s why I prefer to build up to my overarching main point, which is in that final paragraph. Each of those prior paragraphs, I’d like to think, all contain points that support what I’m trying to say overall. Perhaps a better writer than me can do it, but when I’m writing facts, I write the facts as they are, not my opinion of them hence the style those paragraphs are written in.

  6. my intention was not to appraise the accuracy, subjectivity, objectivity or originality of the article for the purpose of implying a better writer do it. that would be silly. merely stating that you are able to, else i would not have made the comment.

  7. I don't want to sound like I am agreeing with Surita, but I do think your last paragraph is quite something, mate. In particular, I thought this sentence summed up your argument beautifully:

    "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 think the point you are making is an excellent one. We're not actually nation of football-loving nationalists. What we are is a people who make do with what we have, and the real South Africa is the one we saw over the last three weeks. Some people stepped out and other people stepped in. That's what we do well.

    As a side note, the volunteers who stepped in all deserve the medal of Oliver Tambo or whatever that award is called.

  8. MvP, never mistook you for an optimist but that bit on mopping hospital floors because it's the right thing to do betrayed your true nature. I'll say it again, just to make it sound dirty. Optimist. And slowly this time (and snapping fingers), op-ti-mist.

    But seriously, it's a nice ideal but far removed from the reality of things. There are very few things in this world that are absolutely right or wrong I think. I cannot happily mop a hospital floor when I have no idea how I'm going to pay my rent, or feed & clothe my kids, heck, or even how I'm going to pay for my next badly needed dop. As human beings, our needs conflict all the time and it's unfair to say this act is more reflective of humanity than the next. It could be said that striking nurses are acting to preserve the future of their own kids. How is that less (or more) noble than taking care of someone else's newborn?

    And on national pride: While I agree on how it has been used in perverse ways, I think that it is no different to everything else it the world. Think of all the things that you consider "good" and I assure you, someone can find a way to make them "bad".

  9. Mr Molefe, how very dare you… Who dear, me dear, an optimist dear, no dear! Lady Macbeth has nothing on me when it comes to having removed the milk of human kindness. Either way, I agree with your point, there are very few things that can be said to be totally wrong or right. However, on national pride, I stand by my point. Whilst it can be used as a positive, and there are probably far more cases of that happening, the inherent dangers of it being used in a negative way only rise the stronger national pride becomes in a population. Probably the best examples of nationalism gone bad are the World Wars, but one doesn’t even need to go so far back to see examples. Look at when the US went anti-France mad just because the French refused to go along with the US invasion of Iraq. From ‘Freedom Fries,’ in Congress to an image that’ll always stay with me, a New York restaurateur pouring thousands of dollars worth of French wine down the drain outside his restaurant. Imagine a less scrupulous government, in a younger democracy, no names need be mentioned *coughs* RSA *coughs* taking that kind of fervent pride and using it for their own means.

    “What we are is a people who make do with what we have, and the real South Africa is the one we saw over the last three weeks. Some people stepped out & other people stepped in.” Simon, I think you totally summed up what I was trying to say better than I did, thanks. Couldn’t agree with you more on your side-note. I also don’t know what the award is though, does that make us bad South Africans?