Patriotisms will be packed away over the coming days, and I imagine that many South Africans will resume business as usual. It’s been a bit amusing, yet predictable, to see how people pick and choose when or how to be patriotic, imagining that the best, and the only, form of patriotism is waving a flag at a Springboks match and singing the parts of the national anthem that are most familiar.
Let me switch play. There is an awful tendency among Capetonians to consider Table Mountain as their own private property. This was concealed in the text, published earlier, by a writer who referred to the people of Cape Town and their “insufferably cultish attitude to its mountain and its whales”.
To help emphasise my points, although I was born (in Fietas) and raised in Johannesburg (on the streets of Eldorado Park, Kliptown, Noordgesig, Riverlea and Westbury), I have a very big family and a significant (and deep) family heritage across the Cape Flats – with very few people among them being “cultish” about Table Mountain or whales. I don’t particularly care about either, apart from them being part of our common pool inheritance, and that we should protect them from exploitation and abuse.
For better or for worse, my family are more passionate about keramat sites across the Peninsula and on the Cape Flats. I guess the writer was referring to another community, probably the English-speaking folk. Let me switch play again. There is a tendency among sectors of South African society to consider the Springboks as their own private property.
It’s in the blood
It is no great revelation to make the point that there is an umbilical link between rugby and Afrikaner pride. Rugby was described by the late Frank Keating of The Guardian, as “the mother’s milk, the lifeblood, the elixir that fuels … [Afrikaner] arrogance. And clothed in their vestments of green and gold, the Springboks are religious icons and totems to the faith.”
According to South African History Online, “Afrikaners viewed the success of the Springboks in international test play as a reflection of their accomplishments as a civilisation. The Afrikaner love of the team enabled former players to use their sporting stature to launch into politics, and nearly all former Springboks supported the National Party – the eventual architects of apartheid.”
That’s all fine; there are people in the United States who believe that gridiron football is part of “American culture and identity”. The English have similar views about football, Canadians about hockey (it runs in the blood and is part of Canadian identity), and cricket reportedly “runs in the blood” of Indians.
If only for a laugh (but seriously), consider the observation that in the USA, gridiron football is ideologically grounded in American patriotism and identity. In 1986, Jack Kemp, a legislator and former quarterback, explained that their version of football was fundamentally in opposition to “European socialist” football, and their football represented American values of “democracy” and “capitalism”. The absurdity is astounding.
Back in the mid-1990s, John Nauright, an American academic and his colleagues explained that “[rugby’s] social significance may be largely confined to providing a haven of comfort, familiarity, escape – in short, nostalgia – for white, male South Africans as they attempt to adapt culturally to the dizzying changes in the socio-political order, and retain a sense of their own distinctive place therein … [the Springbok] is such a strong symbol of white national and Afrikaner pride that surveys of white South Africans in the early 1990s showed that many were willing to give up the flag and the anthem, but very few would relinquish the Springbok.”
I agree that sport has the power to instil “national” feelings of patriotism, pride and solidarity and, as Eric Hobsbawm explained, at any or every sporting contest, the supporter or fan “becomes a symbol of his nation himself”.
I do not think, however, that what is put on display during or after Springbok matches amounts to more than symbolic capital (and nostalgia) when there are so many other forms of capital that could contribute to overall prosperity, stability, equality and high levels of trust in society.
Part-time patriotism and selective solidarity
Patriotism, at least in South Africa, seems like a part-time activity, and expressed only when supporting the Springboks, especially after they have won. It makes people go giddy…
This part-time patriotism, and solidarity with “the men on the field” or “the Springbok logo”, may be necessary (it may be), but it is insufficient. There are many other ways to be patriotic. As it goes, I prefer making a contribution to society in other, more material ways. We will come back to this below.
To be clear. I agree with everything that has been said about Siya Kolisi’s leadership, but I remain unconvinced that his strength, humility and on-field qualities would make a contribution to politics, state and society. From what has been written and said in the media, he is genuinely kind, decent and humble.
I also agree with much that has been said about the Springbok victory over the All Blacks in Paris. I have a TV licence, but could not be arsed to get subscriptions to watch the SABC or any other local news or entertainment channels, which means I did not watch any of the World Cup matches.
There really is no good enough reason to watch SABC broadcasts. Actually, when I read about an alleged racist remark made by a Springbok player, I went online, searched and found reference to Eben Etzebeth. He is most innocent…
I should declare that I have been a supporter of the All Blacks since the age of 12. I don’t think that will change. While I admire the athleticism of individual Springbok players and accept their achievements, there has been almost no flickering of sentiments.
I don’t think that winning the Rugby World Cup will improve the lives of millions of people, eradicate crime or violence against women and children, create the five million jobs we need and provide better political leaders. We have to get our priorities right.
Then again, South Africans are desperate for moments of levity; a lifetime of levity cannot change the horrors of the past three decades.
Monstrous societies produce monstrous leaders. Politicians are from particular societies and are elected by people in society.
The best, most trustworthy politicians and leaders in South Africa have stepped away, and are working in the private sector. Among these political leaders are “outsiders”, people who have done much more for the country than waving a flag and singing the easy parts of the national anthem.
Among them are four or five people – from Potchefstroom and Johannesburg, to the Eastern and Western Cape – who I know well, and who have placed their personal values (ethics, professionalism, kindness, decency, generosity, dedication and vision) above those of the state, where the state has been elided with “the party”.
You can usually tell what they stand for when the revolutionaries, the ethno-nationalists who drive the politics of revenge, call them “sell-outs”, or associate them with “white monopoly capital”.
Very many of us who worked and contributed to a better society for the better part of 40 years remain committed. My own contributions have been exceptionally small and insignificant – probably invisible. What all these “outsiders” demonstrate is that one can place one’s personal values above those of one’s country – not, it should be stressed, in that excessive individualist and atomist way that liberals so value.
My personal view is to never consider anyone as a means to an end but as ends in themselves.
Nou ja. People can support any sporting team or club. There should be no limitations or restrictions on who to support. My sporting tribalism is best expressed against that Lowly Newspaperman™ who supports Tottenham Hotspur… I don’t know who said it. I hope it was Arsene Wenger. So, let me paraphrase the great Arsene Wenger.
Rugby is the most important of the least important things in life; some people tie their identity and their lives to symbols of national pride, and it makes them proud and patriotic, until the next time. You can pick your patriotism, but never have to pay for it.
Let me close, then, with the following passage, and hope everything I have written makes sense.
When the Americans went to war against the Vietnamese people, the US government tried to conscript Muhammad Ali. He refused to be conscripted and said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home, and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” DM