Prepare to howl …
But before you do, let me say this in my defence. I love world-class tennis. On my pantheon of heroes, the great Rafael Nadal stands alongside Bruce Lee, Bruce Fordyce and Serena Williams. Although I’ll always be a Rafa fan, rather than a Federer fundi, I also have much admiration for Roger Federer’s gentility, tenacity and staying power. I believe he’s an honourable and well-meaning man. I acknowledge that his Foundation does great work: It has spent over $52-million in the last 16 years and reached over 1.5-million children in Southern Africa and his native Switzerland.
Rafa Nadal’s foundation also directs resources at young people, and education, although its focus is on Spain and India.
Having said that … the spectacle of tennis that took place on 7 Febraury 2020 left me so troubled that I couldn’t watch the TV broadcast much beyond the first set.
What was wrong?
Not much and that’s half the point.
The Match for Africa was meticulously organised; it was well choreographed; efficiently run; and utilised the latest in sports technology – Hawkeye Live, for example, did away with the need for linespeople. Reflecting the feelings of many other South Africans, one of my colleagues commented that it “makes me proud when you see how well put together this is”.
However, I couldn’t help but ask questions about our ability in South Africa to put on complex world-class events and pull them off with panache (the 2010 Soccer World Cup is the best case in point), while we simultaneously seem unable to sort out the most basic of issues like school sanitation, or essential medicines supply to clinics.
Like parts of our private health system and our top private schools, the event was world class. We brag that we could have been watching it in New York, or at the O2 in London. But there’s an irony and it’s that such wishful thinking deliberately masks the facts that Cape Town is not a world-class city for most of its inhabitants – in fact, it’s one of the most unequal and war-torn cities in the world. It’s a city where the spatial divisions created by apartheid have not been broken down; where the wounds still suppurate.
Cape Town is a city where there’s a gang war going on that kills three people a day. It’s a city blighted by homelessness, mass unemployment and substance abuse. It’s a city where there’s a whole lot of despair. It’s a city whose modern history is best told by authors like the late Sello Duiker in his novel The Quiet Violence of Dreams.
The social and economic problems of Cape Town do not fester untended because of a lack of resources – but because of a lack of will. The Cape Town City Council has a surplus of R14-billion. While it can partner with the Match in Africa presumably at a substantial cost; while it can shut down the streets and up policing in the vicinity of the stadium; it will at the same time bury a considered report and recommendations on a strategy to mitigate the gang crisis on the Cape Flats – presumably because it would cost a lost. (The 2019 report is called The Strategic Roadmap Towards Implementation of the National Anti-Gangsterism Strategy in the Western Cape and I have a leaked copy.)
The tennis was marvelous, but it both soothed my soul and scratched a sore. In my upset and anger about these deadly contradictions, one of my colleagues cautioned me, arguing that at least the Roger Federer, Bill and Melinda Gates, Rafael Nadal and Trevor Noah Foundations are doing a great deal of good.
“My ire would be better targeted at the despicable rich who avoid taxes, enable state capture and share none of their wealth” she said, and I agreed.
Actually, there’s a discussion to be had here too. In 2017, the writer Anan Giridharadas wrote a book called Winners Take All, the Elite Charade of Changing the World. Giridharadas’ book is a carefully researched and considered critique of modern philanthropy written by someone who calls himself an “insider-outsider”, a person who worked in what he calls MarketWorld until “I began to feel like a casual participant in – and timid accomplice to, as well as a cowardly beneficiary of – a giant, sweet-lipped lie”. He calls his book “a letter to the public, urging them to reclaim world-changing from those who have co-opted it”.
Giriharadas doesn’t question the genuineness of some of the ultra-rich who fund philanthropy (and neither do I), but his gripe is this, that:
“When elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is – above all, to present it as something that should never threaten the winners.”
In his research, he came across another person like himself, one Bruno Giussani (once a mover and shaker at TED), who underwent a similar epiphany. He points out how in MarketWorld:
Giussani observed ideas being framed about “poverty” are more acceptable than ideas framed as being about “inequality.” The two ideas are related. But poverty is a material fact of deprivation that does not point fingers, and inequality is something more worrying: It speaks of what some have and others lack; it flirts with the idea of injustice and wrongdoing; it is relational. “Poverty is essentially a question that you can address via charity,” he said. A person of means, seeing poverty, can write a check and reduce that poverty. “But inequality you can’t, because inequality is not about giving back. Inequality is about how you make the money that you are giving back in the first place.”
Recognising and trying to relieve the horror of poverty, but not admitting its determinants, is what was happening on that blustery Friday night.
To try to counter these darker thoughts, I contacted Noncedo Madubedube, the general secretary of South Africa’s leading education rights advocacy organisation, Equal Education to ask if they had been invited to the match, or perhaps been offered tickets for their Equalisers and Youth Groups.
They had not.
My colleagues’ counter to this was that the Federer Foundation supports early childhood development (ECD) rather than rights-based advocacy. That’s true. It’s accepted that ECD and foundation phase education is critical and needs investment, but it cannot be divorced from the quality of the education system learners pass through at later stages in their education.
And advocacy and activism are an essential part of ensuring sustainable transformation in education.
Finally, let me say something about the demographic of the audience. This I know will raise some hackles in some readers. Some things we should think and not articulate. But if good people don’t talk about difficult things, and change them, dangerous populists will soon exploit our ellipses.
Is it not tragic that 26 years into our democracy – a few days short of the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison – an event like this should have been attended by 95% white people … Siya Kolisi, a few black ball-kids and the Ndlovu Youth Choir, great as they all are, won’t do.
At times, I found it embarrassing that the audience didn’t appear embarrassed about this.
In fact, it was the opposite: Each camera shot that panned over the crowd drew enthusiastic “look at me”, responses from beautiful, tanned, slim, sexy, youthful, or aging gracefully white people, suggesting that in the joy of the night, they were oblivious to deeper social issues. Why did they so outnumber their black compatriots in the audience? If rugby has become a sport for multi-racial celebration and engagement, why not tennis?
I worried that it suggested that a lot of white people still don’t understand their privilege and are still happy to flaunt it.
So, as I watched the greatest tennis players in history, I wondered why Federer’s foundation and local organisers weren’t alive to this issue, or why Noah, who is one of our most acerbic commentators and observers on race, had not made better efforts at ensuring representativity a condition of his involvement.
For example, couldn’t the organisers have made a few thousand tickets available to sports clubs (be they running, rugby, or football), from the townships of the Western Cape?
Admittedly, it might have cost the Federer foundation some of its takings from the night; it might have required that the other sponsors – the purveyors of elite products, Rolex, Moet et Chandon – come down to earth; but it would have done a great deal more to build individual agency, social cohesion, hope and to remedy the imbalances in opportunity when it comes to a sport like tennis that remains very far from accessible to poor people, and black people.
So let’s admit it was a great show, it did South Africa proud, it made us feel good, but in this age of inequality and the anger it causes, we could do so much better. MC
Mark Heywood is the Editor of Maverick Citizen.
"Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth" ~ Aristotle