The 2010 World Cup and the National Question

By Leonard Gentle · 18 Jun 2010

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Picture credit: flowcomm
Picture credit: flowcomm

The World Cup has rightly captured the country’s imagination. Despite Bafana’s anaemic performance against the Uruguayans, there is still a clear sense of relief amongst opinion makers that we’re pulling off hosting the event. The dominant voice proclaims that we’ve proven everyone – meaning the prophets of doom – wrong. 

When the idea of the World Cup bid was first mooted, the debate centred around what benefits it would bring to the country. Government and the bid team argued that it would generate jobs and investment in South Africa.

As events unfolded, however, the debate shifted.

First the figures for the cost of hosting the event rose from R17bn to nearly R40bn and it became apparent that the public purse would be financing it. Then it also started emerging that jobs and new investment were not going to be created and that money, which could have been used for housing, hospitals and so on would have to be ring-fenced for the World Cup. Finally, the news filtered through about FIFA, its Mafiosi nature and Sepp Blatter.

Then, the media shifted the debate exclusively to the simple question: “Can we pull this off?” 

As a result, every critical voice about the benefits of the World Cup has been drowned in the swell of national pride that we “pulled it off.” Everything ran on time, the stadia looked good, there was (almost) no crime. 

Ironically, underlying all this crowing about pulling off a successful World Cup is a deep-seated sense of deprecation that underlies so much of middle class and white South Africa. For months preceding the World Cup the media was full of images that spoke so easily to this racist deprecation: Zuma’s numerous marriages, Malema’s rants, Eskom’s dysfunctionality and so on.

Why this deep sense of embarrassment amongst the chattering classes and why the need for the thumping of chests now?

The palpable relief of the media that the World Cup is “successful,” while such sentiment was not evident in the Rugby and Cricket World Cups of South Africa in 1996 and 2004, is because soccer is the sport of black people and it invokes all the afro-pessimistic fears that black people cannot run the country. This shows that the national question has still not been resolved in the new South Africa.

Now some may want to argue, why do we even need to raise such a question? Surely in the era of globalisation the nation state has been superseded, dumped, as it were, in the “dustbin of history?” Isn’t it only rabid nationalists that are pre-occupied with this question? And isn’t nationalism today just one step away from xenophobia?

True internationalism demands that we redress the inequality between nations, and within nations, if we understand the notion of nation as neither primordial nor based on language, culture or skin colour -- and television, every day, shows the highly varied nature of every football nation, as they “look” very different from what they “looked” like when the World Cup was first held in 1930.

Some sections of the left find the very exploration of “nation” abominable, believing it to be a distraction from the real issue of class inequality. Such sentiments miss the fact that South African capitalism had a specifically racial form and that 1994 did not bring an end to racial divisions, but reproduced these divisions under the ANC’s policies of neo-liberalism. 

To be present in the city centre of Cape Town on 11 June 2010 and see the largely white spectators heading for Cape Town stadium while the almost exclusively black supporters crowded the fan park was to see the convergence of race and class in the new South Africa. To pretend that this division doesn’t exist is to align oneself with the elite minority and the society that reproduces that elite who continue to occupy the bars, clubs and cafés of Cape Town and Sandton, as they did before 1994.

Historically what used to be called “the national question” was about two related issues: the quest for national liberation and the forging of national unity. Both of these are about changing power relations - between states and within nation states - to forge formal equality and democracy. The South African state went through its national independence from Britain in May 1910 -- but national independence was crafted without and with a deliberate rejection of national unity and formal equality.

The South African nation was circumscribed as comprising only of white people with the black majority excluded. Worse still, over decades of oppression, the apartheid regime even tried to invent black “nations” in the form of the patchwork quilt of tribal Bantustans and coloured and Indian townships.

For most of the history of apartheid, accepting whites as the South African nation was not only taken for granted here, but internationally. The whites-only SA football body was one of the first to become a member of FIFA in 1908 and was even one of the first affiliates of the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

By way of contrast, black sportsmen and women, in time, forged alternative sports bodies, challenging white power, and, certainly by the 1950s, consciously broke not only with white exclusivity, but also with any form of racial exclusivity. In football, the South African Soccer Federation first brought together the old Bantu, coloured and Indian football associations and then broke with these racial categories to call itself non-racial. Orlando Pirates, Moroka Swallows, Mother City and Cape Ramblers all played in one national professional league until the Johannesburg City Council broke up this attempt in the 1960s, first by banning mixed teams using Municipal grounds and then by banning coloured and Indian players from the African townships.

The various non-racial sporting codes which came to be grouped under the banner of the South African Council on Sport (SACOS) in the 1980s not only fought to have white South Africa isolated from international sport, they also struggled to forge a genuine non-racial South African nation through sport. Along with all the popular struggles of the 1980s, along with the UDF and COSATU, what was being distilled was the vision for a new South African nation -- the antithesis of the exclusive white, unequal one.

How did this vision pan out after 1994?

It has become common cause that the ANC has had to frustrate its mass working class base by its adoption of business-friendly economic policies post 1994. Kevin Wakeford of Business South Africa said it so eloquently in 2004: 

“The general direction that we took was a correct one. Economic policies have in fact been slanted in favour of big business and at times they got away with murder. Permission to unpatriotically externalise their capital through foreign listings, while going easy on their stranglehold on certain sectors, is indicative of their market privileges. And the brisk ending of the rand commission is further evidence of this friendly attitude.” (Kevin Wakeford, ex MD of Growth Africa and ex-CEO of the South African Chamber of Business, quoted in Business Day, 25/02/04) 

It has meant that the ANC has left intact the citadels of white power in the economy, the media, the universities and schools, the judiciary and in sport. In short, in every aspect of South African social life. The vision of all sections of the mass movement on this question has therefore been frustrated.

From the side of the elite - both the ANC government and big business - this has spawned a kind of opportunistic, hypocritical playing of the “proudly South African” card whenever it is suitable, only to be followed by clientelism and tribal patronage in the case of the ANC, and cynical anti-South Africanism on the part of big business seeking to join the globalisation throng.

While the ANC government calls for Bafana Bafana to “make us proud,” it showed no such pride in adopting a policy of neo-liberalism, the GEAR policy, slavishly copied from the policies of neo-liberal US and British governments. They copied the ideas of privatisation from the last days of the apartheid regime, and while paying lip service to the “Proudly South African” campaign, they took on the ideology of commercialising public services from Margaret Thatcher and the outsourcing of public services to private companies from Tony Blair.

In making its celebrated comprises with Big Business and neo-liberalism, the ANC also made its peace with the local elites of customary societies such as Contralesa, the IFP, the chiefs, the old Tri-cameral sell-outs and even the Nationalist Party itself.

Mbeki grappled with this new South Africa. One that was much more of his own making than Mandela’s. Famously making the eloquent all-embracing “I am an African” speech in parliament as the new President. He then swung round and labelled South Africa a two-nation country (resurrecting and borrowing the old liberal notion of two economies); and finally launched his “native club,” as things became more desperate and he had to prove his “blackness.” This from the most Anglophone South African leader since Smuts, puffing on his pipe and speaking the Queen’s English, while hiding out in his bunker as Zuma’s allied troops marched on Polokwane.

Black economic empowerment (BEE) is cut from the same cloth. The first such initiative came not from the new democratic government but from white capital -- Metropolitan (and its parent, Sanlam) opening its doors to set up RAIL. This was quickly followed by Anglo American making NAIL possible by unbundling its ex crown jewel, JCI before the ANC government belatedly got in on the act with BEE as a policy with state tenders and with prescriptions such as the Mining Charter.

Every bank advertisement on television and every billboard of some large corporation proclaim their being “proudly South African.” Yet South Africa’s biggest companies Anglo American, Old Mutual, Liberty Life, SA Breweries and Didata couldn’t wait to take their money out of the country to the stock markets of London and New York after 1994. And ex-Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, did everything in his power to make this possible, lifting exchange controls and giving them permission to relocate.

In the corporate world it has become de rigeur to feature racially mixed crowds of South Africans frolicking together. The famous beer adverts say it all. The marketing boys and girls are canny operators, and yet they have it right. They are looking at a market comprising mostly whites with a sprinkling of black diamonds to introduce a little colour. Tutu’s rainbow nation was always open to the accusation that “there is no black in the rainbow."

All of these share the same genesis. They are top-down initiatives of the state and capital rather than the outcome of popular struggles from below. As such, they reproduce the relations of power of apartheid, even though they speak the language of the new South Africa, of rainbow-ism and of black liberation.

And ordinary South Africans – including those fighting in the service delivery struggles – have to be persuaded to sing “Die Stem,” to switch on the national pride on cue. It is not that they are lacking in pride and hate whites or entertain primordial feelings of tribalism or xenophobia. It’s just that they feel like they are being asked by the new elite to switch on those feelings in an orchestrated way.

But does that mean ordinary people are not passionate about the World Cup and Bafana? Hell no. It’s just that we still express this passion as a divided, unequal nation: in crowded fan parks tactfully separated from the other South Africans in the glittering stadiums.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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Stef
18 Jun

National Question - Leonard Gentle

I think you are overstating a non-case. The "media relief" over the world cup being successful probably less to do with race and far more to do with the sheer size of the event (immensely bigger than the rugby and cricket world cups); the fact that SA as a developing nation had to deliver under trying global economic conditions the same or better than developed nations had done before; and the extremely high and stringent standards required by Fifa (far more so than the rugby and cricket governing bodies require); and that delivering on these three scores would ensure the anticipated billions flowing into the country which would spell success. Perhaps, being in a country still obsessed with race, you are being just a little too susceptable to finding a racial bogey in the most obscure places. After all, blacks, whites and people of other shades inbetween worked together to stage this world cup. I fail to see how you can honestly make a racial analysis out of this.

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NS
18 Jun

A Question of the Right Kind of Development

I feel the world cup as a tool for nation building will be a spectacular and expensive failure. The world cup promotes a perception that all is well in SA. But the majority of our people are faced with the stark realities of our government

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