Like many others locally and abroad, I have been curious about how we as South Africans have changed as a result of our hosting of the recent World Cup football tournament. In case you missed it, the event was a great success, and the international press and FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) depicted South Africans as efficient, friendly, united, world-class hosts. People from across the country, of all races and classes, came together to welcome the world and celebrate, despite the fact that their national team, Bafana Bafana, didn’t make it passed the first round. The day after the event concluded, The New York Times, one of the major international newspapers, had this to say (July 11 edition):
“As host of the most-watched sporting event on earth, South Africa set out to reinvent itself in the eyes of the world, casting off its reputation as a place defined by violent crime, poverty and AIDS. To a remarkable degree, it succeeded. But as the World Cup ended Sunday, what most surprised South Africans was how much the month-long sporting extravaganza had changed the way they see themselves.”
So, what just happened between us? As I write these words, weeks after the final whistle has blown, is this chemistry fading fast, or are these changes here to stay? Can we build on what was achieved during the World Cup?
Repairing the Social Fabric
My work has probably influenced my curiosity. As a facilitator, I work with groups trying to solve difficult social problems. Whether the issue is food security or xenophobia, structural and technical solutions help to a certain extent, but much of what lies at the heart of dealing with complex social issues is trust, and our ability to work in a functional relationship with one another. This is the stuff of the often-neglected “social fabric,” and the World Cup has taken South Africans a step closer to repairing these frayed relationships.
A few weeks before the World Cup began, we all noticed a change in the air. Social commentary in the media also picked up on the wave of optimism. Barney Mthombothi wrote a wonderful editorial in the Financial Mail reflecting on the sudden celebration of the South African flag within the country. Almost overnight, people were in love with their flag once again. He observed that in most cases, loving your flag happens in times of war and nationalism; seldom does this kind of veneration occur without the exclusion or harm of others. It was a rare moment to be celebrated.
Mthombothi went on to say that it was as if South Africans were falling in love with themselves again, too. This statement struck a chord with me as an example of what can happen between people when we let go of our insecurities regarding our identities. In an editorial in the Mail and Guardian a week before the World Cup, Nic Dawes spoke of recognizing when the time is right for fighting for a better democracy, and when the time is right for celebrating and letting go of the focus on our imperfections.
Once the opening game took place and South Africans’ performance anxiety settled, my email inbox was flooded with forwarded articles that had appeared in the international press about South Africa, all glowing. I spent much bandwidth receiving images of South Africans in celebration, supporting just about every team in the tournament. As the days ticked by, every South African had a story to tell of their “moment” of the World Cup.
And it’s not just the international press that observed a changing dynamic between and among South Africans. Our very own COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) commented in their post-world cup press release: “[I]t has been an even bigger psychological triumph for the country. It has instilled an unprecedented feeling of national pride and self-esteem. It has led to an explosion of patriotism that extended to the entire continent. This patriotism has been rubbed off on the young South Africans now and for many generations to come. It has brought us together as a nation as never before, except possibly for one day on 27 April 1994.”
On reading this statement, I realized that I wanted to understand more deeply what had changed between us. To do so, I hosted an open conversation for participants to reflect on the World Cup experience. About 40 people from different walks of life showed up. It was the best cure for post-World Cup blues. A man shared his conversation with one of the face painters outside Soccer City. The face painter had learned fluent Spanish, from scratch, just from speaking to the fans. Another man was in New York for a business trip during the World Cup. Every time he walked by a bar or restaurant that was showing a game, the place was jovial, and inevitably someone would blow a vuvuzela. He said it felt like home.
Many of the stories were about racial insights. A black woman shared how she realized how much she stereotyped white people. She’d always considered herself a proud South African, and after seeing the support and celebration of white South Africans, she needed a word much bigger than “proud” to explain how she felt about this country. A number of white participants commented on the friendliness and efficiency of the police. A woman shared how striking it was to see white people in Park Station, the beautiful train station in the centre of Johannesburg. A black man commented on how surprised he was when, as he was complaining to his mate about the cold during one of the matches, a white guy in front of him offered him his jacket. He added, “Not only was he white, but he was also from Cape Town!”
Impulsive Acts of Unity
So now what? From these and many other stories, I have concluded that we have to encourage impulsive acts of unity, no matter how unresolved or naive we think our action might be. Patriotism is not just flag-flying—it is reaching out and talking to fellow South Africans about what is good about this place, using the much improved public transport and experiencing the rich diversity of public spaces and people outside our often-divided comfort zones. This newfound but fragile sense of shared identity has given South Africans a ticket to a bigger world in our own strange but enchanting country. Much more is possible in a place where everyone feels that they belong.
I conclude by echoing the words of John Carlin (author of Playing the Enemy, the book on which the movie Invictus was based, which focused on the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa):
“The big lesson I take away from all this is one that I already knew but had forgotten, amidst the distracting babble we read about in the press, and hear and see in the broadcast media from the political classes, chatterers and newspaper columnists.
South Africa is much better, brighter and bigger-hearted than you'd think from paying attention to all that lot. The society is great, and it is the reason why (never mind the safari parks and the fairest Cape) so many of us foreigners who've spent time here find this country more beguiling than any other on Earth. Ordinary people have so much more wisdom, grit, resilience, invention, courage and generosity than you find in most countries.”
Our work as South Africans is as much about relatively simple acts of connection and celebration as it is about addressing big, complex development priorities. The World Cup has reminded me of this truth, and I hope to give equal attention to both and not get bogged down by what’s “stuck” or not happening—often the focus of our difficult work in the world.
Colleen Magner is a partner of Reos Partners in Johannesburg, faculty member of the Gordon Institute of Business Science at the University of Pretoria, a wife and mother of two children, and a committed South African citizen.