History will be made on Friday, June 11 when the biggest sporting event kicks off in South Africa. It’s the first time the soccer World Cup is taking place on the African continent, but more importantly it’s being played in a country that was an international pariah less than a generation ago.
As recently as 1990 South Africa was barred from all sporting events because of Apartheid and racial discrimination that embroiled the country in prolonged violence that threatened to become a full scale war.
As someone who grew up in South Africa during the time of Apartheid, I believed that if change came it would be accompanied by a war so brutal few would be left standing at the end. Instead we saw sworn enemies sit down to discuss the country’s future as Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison in 1990 to help forge a new South Africa. Four years later he was elected President when all non-white South Africans were allowed to vote for the first time.
South Africa was readmitted to the Olympic movement in 1992 for the games in Barcelona, but the country was still fractured when Mandela, in a remarkable gesture for unity, after overcoming his own party’s objections, donned the jersey of the South African team to preside over the rugby World Cup final won by the South African team in Johannesburg in 1995. Rugby was and is still the sport of the Afrikaaners who had ruled so brutally since 1948 and was thus a hated symbol of Apartheid for all non-white South Africans.
It was a truly powerful moment depicted in the movie “Invictus” where the power of sport brought a fractured nation together. The sight of a stadium full of the very people who considered him evil incarnate rising to chant his name is forever etched in my memory. Thus the ‘Rainbow Nation’ that is the new South Africa came into being.
Fifteen years on, despite a mountain of skepticism and criticism, particularly from Europe and the U.S., South Africa is ready to play host. They said the stadiums wouldn’t be ready on time. They said there was too much crime and not enough accommodations or public transport. Crime is still a huge problem in South Africa, caused by a high level of poverty and by the ‘Lost Generation’ of blacks who came of age in the 1980’s when their schooling virtually ceased to exist and violence was a way of life, but it is slowly declining. Despite a myriad of problems, a new South Africa is slowly evolving with a new generation who can only truly understand the evil of Apartheid from their elders or from history books.
There are no accommodation problems, partly due to the worldwide economic recession and partly due to people being scared off by the negative publicity. There have been traffic glitches at some of the friendly pre-cup games but we only have to look back to the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 and the logistical nightmare there to see that even the can-do Americans can’t do everything right.
South Africans are an expansive people. There are whites who speak two different languages and nine black tribes with different languages, although urbanization and intermarriage is dissipating these differences. There is also the largest Indian population outside India and a racially mixed mélange originating with slaves brought by the Dutch from their East Asian colonies a few hundred years ago.
After a tragic and difficult past they are finally one people with a newly minted constitution guaranteeing rights for all. It was the first constitution in the world to enshrine full rights for all sexual orientation. South Africans are a people who love to have fun. No matter what the color of their skin or their financial situation, they will unite passionately behind the unfancied Bafana, Bafana (The boys, the boys) as well as cheering on the other thirty-one teams in the tournament.
There is a new sense of pride in the country, ready to show the world their best face for a month of festivities. There are those who criticized the expense of building new stadiums, suggesting the money would be better spent elsewhere alleviating some of the ailments that South Africans still endure, but the morale boost for the country, already more than evident, is in many ways immeasurable.
For me as a passionate soccer fan and an ex-South African it is a dream come true. In my younger years living there I would attend games of the local white-only semi-pro league, oblivious to the black league that played there games a mere twenty miles away in Soweto, dreaming that some day South Africa will be accepted back into the fold with a team representing the country chosen purely for ability and not skin color. I knew that when or if that day came, it would be because all South Africans would finally be free.
That day came and South Africa is ready to show its proud and joyous face to the world. Let the games begin.