The World Cup Is a Lift for South Africa

The soccer matches will provide a lift for the national mood of a country that wrestles with seemingly intractable problems in a democratic context if no longer with the uncritical acclaim of the immediate post-apartheid era.
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Opening June 10, South Africa hosts the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) World Cup, the most widely watched sporting event in the world. Played at ten stadiums around the country, the soccer matches will provide a lift for the national mood of a country that wrestles with seemingly intractable problems in a democratic context if no longer with the uncritical international acclaim of the immediate post-apartheid era. Nelson Mandela and other prominent South Africans lobbied FIFA hard for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup as long ago as 2004 when the this year's venue was decided. The slogan then for the South African bid was "Africa's time has come, and South Africa is ready." Recalling the euphoria of the successful transition to non-racial democracy the decade previously, President Thabo Mbeki and Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined Nelson Mandela at the podium when FIFA announced the success of South Africa's candidacy.

Athletics are central to the popular culture of people of all races in South Africa and pride in their nation's sporting prowess is a unifying factor in an otherwise highly divided society. Hence, there is genuine enthusiasm about South Africa's hosting the World Cup, even among those who do not follow soccer. While in post-apartheid South Africa the national soccer and rugby teams are marginally racially integrated, football (soccer) fans are mostly black and rugby's are white. Because the two biggest spectator sports are de facto segregated, in part for cultural reasons, the teams within each sport are not identified with a particular race or culture, and games have not usually been the occasion for strife. There has been little equivalent to the stadium violence that in the past accompanied soccer matches between the Glasgow Celtics (Catholic) and the Glasgow Rangers ( Protestant) in Scotland, for example.

In fact, sport has played a positive role in the nation's transition to non-racial democracy. In the struggle against apartheid, the international community's sanctions against South African sport bit deeply into white consciousness and underscored the unacceptability of the country's racial policies; in those terms they may have been more effective with the man-in-the-street than the economic sanctions. In the aftermath of the country's 1994 non-racial elections that shifted political power from whites in the now-defunct National Party to the non-racial but predominately black African National Congress, South Africa's 1995 rugby world championship victory over the New Zealand All Blacks fostered white reconciliation to the new order, the subject of the 2010 Hollywood film Invictus. At the final game of that series, President Mandela wore a jersey with the number of the Afrikaner captain of the South African team, Francois Pinaar, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the field in full vestments blessed the team previously identified with the apartheid regime.

Sixteen years after the transition to non-racial democracy, South Africa deserves a World Cup boost. In many ways, the country is a success. For example, the constitution is among the most liberal in the world with full protection for human rights and an independent judiciary. There are free, fair, and credible national elections. The governing party, the African National Congress, is more internally democratic than other African mass parties, as Zuma's defeat of Mbeki at the party's 2007 convention illustrated. Yet, the euphoria and hope that accompanied the country's transition to non-racial democracy has faded. Most blacks remain impoverished, a reality set in relief by the emergence of a tiny, rich black elite often with connections to the ruling African National Congress and allegedly privileged access to various black economic empowerment schemes. There continues to be some truth in the old cliché that South Africa's blacks are as poor as Cameroonians, while its whites enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. Electoral politics remains largely defined by race, with blacks voting for the ANC while the whites and "coloureds" (mixed race) vote for the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition. No credible threat to the ANC's electoral predominance has yet emerged.

The presidency, a source of pride and unity under Mandela, has lost its luster under his successors. Thabo Mbeki's international reputation is tarnished by his failed policy toward Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe and his quixotic position on HIV/AIDS. At home, he was unable to address successfully the poverty of the country's masses even while his policies promoted economic growth. Jacob Zuma is notorious for his polygamy even as he has reversed the HIV/AIDS policies of his predecessors and may take a more muscular approach to Zimbabwe. At home, South Africans across racial lines are uneasy with his personal behavior and the allegations of his corruption. However, for the next month soccer excitement and pride in hosting the World Coup will likely lift the gloomy political mood, if only for a time and bridge somewhat South Africa's enduring racial and economic divides.