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Pick-and-don’t-pay patriotism and selective solidarities show your slip


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Patriotism, at least in South Africa, seems like a part-time activity, and expressed only when supporting the Springboks, especially after they have won. There are many other ways to be patriotic.

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anton De Waal says:

    Ag please man. Blame the ANC or jesus, but not Springbok supporters. Misery is your fuel

  • Lonnie Tiegs says:

    That was uplifting! Not.

  • Ben Harper says:

    What a piece of garbage. Stick to supporting the All Blacks, no one really cares

  • David Walker says:

    There is so much wrong with this article it is hard to know where to start. I can understand those oppressed by apartheid supporting the All Blacks before 1994. So called ‘white people’ have undergone an enormous shift in attitude in SA since 1990, and similarly, the vast majority of all communities now support the Springbok team – it is only those who are stuck in the past like Ismail who enjoy clinging to their old prejudices. As for CT and the mountain…. it is through taking responsibility and caring for our beautiful natural areas that we will preserve them as an eminent tourist destination as well as for future generations. So yes, we take our beautiful beaches, vleis and mountains in CT seriously.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    Dr Lagardien let’s not always be negative. In a country divided by our history, divided by our politicians (in the DA, ANC, and EFF in particular), divided by educational and economic opportunities, divided (as you suggest) by our love or loathing for Table Mountain and the beaches of the Cape) let’s not belittle the good things that draw us together. Since democracy in 1994 people of colour have aspired to, and achieved, excellence in the “previously white” sports. Our Rugby World Cup triumph is a powerful uniting moment. Let’s celebrate it as that, and look for more that unites us instead of driving us apart.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    I am a white Capetonian and I have no cultist feelings about Table Mountain and as far as whales: seen one seen them all. I agree with you that the so called patriotism around the Spingboks is a two day wonder but it is a harmless distraction, like going to Church, and doesn’t need to be scrutinized for racial analysis, which has lately become your particular genre.

  • Sean Hammon says:

    What a rambling load of nonsense. The author clearly fallen in love with itself… and then the hipnotised publication gives it thousands of words for it to apply its gaudy, incoherent makeup. I’ll never have that wasted time black again!

  • Steven D says:

    It’s difficult to see this article as anything more than sour grapes, considering the writer’s sporting allegiances. It is also difficult to give this piece any further consideration when the writer seems to ignore the undeniable fact that South Africans are tired of the ineptocracy that governs them – why should they be expected to contribute anything more than their taxes when that same ineptocracy does everything in its power to save its own skin instead of the state’s?

    Let the government lead the way in giving South Africans reasons to be patriotic because right now, it’s only the country’s sporting teams (excepting Bafana Bafana) who are giving South Africans a reason to feel good about the nation.

  • Ritey roo roo says:

    Oh, please. Just give it a break and that goes for DM too.

  • C Morrison says:

    Ismail, I was really reading for the promised explanation of the “many” other forms of social capital, but alas.

  • C Morrison says:

    Commenters on the Afrikanerisation of SA rugby often fail to notice that rugby is also part of the sporting heritage of black South Africans. The South African Rugby Federation (SARF) and the South African Rugby Association (SARA) have a proud heritage. Defaulting to support of the All Blacks disrespects our guys who faced historical racial exclusion.

    All Black teams are not historically beyond complicit in the racialisation of rugby teams, where on SA tours before 1960, Maori players were left at home. Racially-selected AB teams toured South Africa until 1970, when Māori AB players were given ‘honorary white’ status. Really! “Honorary whites”?

    I understand SA support for the AB, but it is based on faulty history. The AB don’t have the moral high ground. The AB left Maori players at home when touring South Africa.

  • C Morrison says:

    The protest group Halt All Racist Tours was formed in 1969 to protest SA rugby tours, but HART also protested that Maori players were being left at home for these tours to SA by their rugby Union.

    In the New Zealand Herald in April 2010, Muru Walters revealed that in 1956 Ernest Corbett, Minister of Māori Affairs, had told the Māori All Blacks to deliberately lose to the Springboks. The Māori team lost 37–0. Walters called for the New Zealand government to apologise for the way it treated Māori rugby players.

    I support our 2023 unified Springbok team because they represent all of South Africa.
    The public spaces where I watched the RWC final with my adult children had more black South Africans gathered than whites, and the atmosphere was electric. There were plenty of racially mixed tables of patrons too, which is great to see.

    I think commentators who continue to make Springbok support a bastion of Afrikanerdom do us all a disservice.

    We are claiming back the Springbok emblem. For all of us. But especially for the SARF and SARA players of old.

  • MT Wessels says:

    Well, that’s 2 minutes I’m not getting back. A ferocious little pity party of shallow straw-men being savaged by a wet match.
    So what if sport with all it’s quasi-religious and fervent flag-waving, chest-thumping jingoism appeals most to the basest elements of different societies? For one it provides a pressure valve: who’d not rather have the Israelis and Palestinians play football than bombing each other in unending eye-for-an-eye-till-everyone-is-blind thuggery.

  • David van der Want says:

    Don’t underestimate the value of symbolic capital – images of muscled white Afrikaans speaking men hugging equally strong black men with clearly heartfelt emotion are valuable. Not to mention the hysterically funny subversion of old meaning frameworks present in the story of a black South African who wasn’t even born in 1976, speaking what was the language of the oppressor to his white team mates and being misunderstood by an Englishman (representative of the old colonial power) and then being vociferously, humourously and unanimously defended by Saffas from every walk of life.

    Personally, although I have played sport all my life I’ve always loathed Rugby – I was forced to play it as a slightly built teenager at St Martin’s School in Johannesburg in the 80’s and hated every minute. Like you I can appreciate the athleticism of the players but I intensely dislike the emphasis on winning and losing – far more interesting is the story and the personal meaning attached to sport.

    No it won’t solve the terrible problems of inequality, poverty, violence and venal behaviour that plague us and perhaps the craze of Rugby may even be a destructive distraction from these, but when I grew up scenes like those broadcast across the world over the last weeks would have been punished with jail time and worse and I don’t believe any of us has any nostalgia for that.

  • A B says:

    WOW. The irony of these comments is not lost. Well articulated article.

  • Rae Earl says:

    Lagardien seems intent on proving that he’s clever with words. He isn’t. I had to keep re-reading lines trying to figure what he was getting at. In a nutshell this guy is as much of a windbag as Cyril Ramaphosa. There are better things to read in DM. I’ll give this puffed up Phd a miss next time round.

  • Theresa Avenant says:

    Ismail, you have been one of my most respected writers for years and I have enjoyed many of your opinion articles. However, this one is completely toxic. What happened? Maybe you need to take a holiday. Or at least try a prozac or two after your morning coffee. They help. Unfortunately, you have now been deleted from my list of favourites. Not that you care.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Reading many of the responses to your article about ‘patriotism’ and its selective biases, it is evident that most of the respondents did not ‘participate’ in ‘non-racial’ sports as I (and probably you) did under the SACOS banner, during that intense period of “no normal sports in an abnormal society”. Its impact on our choices and decisions (like the reference to Ali) played a crucial role in our ‘development’ … which we should not expect those who chose ‘normal’ sport to embrace. It is thus quite ironic that ‘they’ so fervently now embrace ‘patriotism’ ! Incidentally … even Judith February whom I regard as an astute and most cerebral analyst of our SA situation, seems to have been seduced by this patriotic ‘reverie’ , following the boks victory.

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