The Africa Cup of Nations is a stark reminder that patriotism and social cohesion cannot be bought as part and parcel of the rights to host major sports tournaments. To attract new fans, those fans must be represented by players with whom they strongly identify.
The other day, less than an hour after South Africa had trounced New Zealand in the second cricket Test in Port Elizabeth, I was sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, listening to two other patients having a conversation.
After discussing how well the cricket team was doing – being number one in the world and all that – the one guy remarked: “Now we must only get our rugby guys also to start playing like world champions.”
I thought to myself: “What about Bafana Bafana? We are on the verge of hosting the African Cup of Nations, yet this guy does not even mention Bafana Bafana?”
The discussion was between two white men and I realised then that, while sport has a reputation as a great unifier of our nation, is can also be a great divider.
In South Africa, on the face of it, most white South Africans support rugby and cricket, but not many support local soccer. Their allegiance to soccer often ends in the United Kingdom. It appears that the euphoria that came our way with the 2010 Soccer World Cup, when young white men could be seen wearing Bafana Bafana jerseys, has long been forgotten.
Most black South Africans, it appears, support local soccer even though they might not necessarily support Bafana Bafana, but this probably has to do with the losing culture that has gripped the national soccer team over the past few years.
Bafana’s latest performance on Saturday night, when they failed to beat an ordinary Cape Verde team, will not help to endear them to many South Africans.
However, it is an amazing experience to watch Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates battle it out at Soccer City in front of close to 100,000 fans. In fact, it is amazing to watch Chiefs or Pirates play any other team anywhere in the country, because of their huge support base.
Black, and mainly African, support for rugby and cricket is not substantial, partly because the national and provincial rugby and cricket teams have not yet grasped the concept that, to attract a new demographic of supporters, you need to include people from that demographic in your teams.
Even a top British soccer team like Manchester United realise that, in order to develop their fan base in the East, they need to include players from Eastern countries in their squads.
This is one of the reasons why the treatment handed out to Lions wicket-keeper Thami Tsolekile rankles with cricket fans. Tsolekile was called up to the national cricket Test squad, promised he would play at some point last year, only to sit on the bench for months on end. This prompted critics to note that the last time an African black had played for the Proteas was more than two years ago.
Cricket’s administrators have also not endeared themselves to soccer lovers by hosting the first of the one-day internationals against New Zealand on the same day as Bafana Bafana played their first Afcon game.
I have noticed, when attending rugby or cricket matches recently, like the one-day international against New Zealand at Boland Park on Saturday, that more “coloured” people are now attending these games but the number of African blacks can still be counted on one or two hands.
We had to rush from the cricket stadium in order to watch the second half of the Bafana Bafana game on television.
The retort from those people who do not support soccer is normally: “Why must the rugby and cricket teams be representative when the soccer teams are not; there are only/mainly black players in the soccer teams?”
The reality is that the vast majority of South Africans are black and for any sport to become more representative of the population, the majority of players will inevitably be black. In South Africa, because of our divided past, it is probably a greater sin to field an all-white national or provincial team than it is to field an all-black national or provincial team.
I am not advocating that only black people should play sport in South Africa or that all national and provincial teams in all sport should be made up of mainly black players. What I am arguing is that we need to reach a situation where all South Africans will feel comfortable supporting all national and provincial teams, irrespective of the sport they represent.
In some ways, we seem to have gone backwards in our support for various sports since our country became a democracy and the various sporting codes “unified”.
In the Apartheid days, I remember attending rugby and cricket games under the supervision of the non-racial sports unions in the Western and Eastern Cape townships attended by hundreds, and sometimes thousands of people. One has to ask what happened to those supporters and why they appear to no longer support these sports.
Part of the reason could lie in the fact that “unification” of rugby and cricket in many areas meant co-option. The traditionally stronger and richer former white unions basically gobbled up the smaller and less wealthy black unions.
It could also be an economic thing: cricket and rugby tickets traditionally cost a lot more than soccer tickets.
I remember being invited to the presidential suites at both Newlands rugby and cricket grounds shortly after we became a democracy and how uncomfortable I felt being surrounded by pictures of all-white teams.
Even though there was unity, it seemed that the history of black rugby and cricket was not appreciated or acknowledged.
This situation has changed recently at Newlands cricket ground, probably mainly because of the hard work done by its CEO, Professor Andre Odendaal, who has always focused his historian skills on exploring black history, in politics and sport.
How do we change this situation? How do we, on an ongoing basis, have demographically representative audiences for all sport? We are not going to bring back the 2010 days by declaring “Soccer Fridays” and urging people to wear the national soccer team’s jerseys.
And we cannot regularly host major sports tournaments in an attempt to create some social cohesion and patriotism. We have already seen the reports about some municipalities struggling to pay for their Afcon participation. If reports are to be believed, then some have been forced to seriously cut service delivery in order to host Afcon games in their stadiums.
We have seen the impact of South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup and the African Cup of Nations on home soil, and also hosting the 2010 World Cup. But those opportunities do not come along every day and they are way too expensive.
Making our various codes more acceptable to all South Africans needs to start on the ground at primary school level. Whatever culture is developed at this early stage will hopefully permeate through to our national and provincial teams.
Hopefully we will soon reach a stage where all of us will feel passionate about all our national teams, and not only about soccer, rugby and cricket. DM
Ryland Fisher has more than 30 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive. Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times.Fisher is the author of Race (published 2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, Making the Media Work for You (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He also runs a consultancy focusing on media and social cohesion.
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle