The news emerged today that, health permitting, Nelson Mandela will be in attendance at the Final at Soccer City on Sunday and if this is the case, he will be asked to present the trophy to the new champions. I sincerely hope this is what comes to pass. This is how it should be. Because from the moment the reports broke of the tragic and premature death of his great grand-daughter on the eve of the tournament, some of the soul was ripped out of this greatest of parties. As I wrote all those weeks ago, this was to be the crowning glory of the great man’s ‘long walk to freedom’ and to have been so sadly denied the opportunity to bask in the sunshine of his nation’s open embracing of the rest of the world is perhaps one of the most callous hands fate could have dealt. (see va-va-vuvuzela)
Who knows how things would have turned out if he had been there cheering on Bafana Bafana’s willing but ultimately average players? Would his very presence have provided them with the spur to convert the chances they had in that opening game against Mexico? Would it have provided them with a springboard to take the entire nation on an emotional and far-reaching adventure which would have spread elsewhere in the tournament and transformed it into the romantic blend of sub-narratives we all so desperately crave from this wonderful sport? Unfortunately, we will never know but what is clear is that this first African World Cup has broadened the horizons and re-drawn the cultural landscapes for all who have followed it beyond the cut and thrust of events on the pitches of South Africa.
The broadcasters came in for some initial criticism in this blog for pandering to pre-conceived notions of national stereotyping; the village with no electricity, the patronising of poverty-stricken South Africans and the tendency to pigeonhole African sides with labels such as ‘tactically naive’ and ‘physically imposing’. However, as the tournament has progressed, the media and especially the BBC, has sought to articulate the problems, both social and historical, with a sensitivity and genuine insight that can only be wholeheartedly commended. I have been unquestionably moved by Clarence Seedorf’s visit to Robben Island (see 8799052.stm) and enlightened by Mark Lawrenson’s report on how Anfield’s Kop was named after a brutal battle of the Boer War, encompasing such historical figures such as Churchill and Ghandi (see 8775410.stm). However, what resonated the most with me was the BBC’s re-telling of the horrifying events in Cape Town in 1966.
The black inhabitants of the city’s District 6 were forcibly evicted to make way for whites but the area was regrettably neglected over a period of years and a once flourishing and vibrant place was eventually razed to the ground. Of course this is just one aspect of such a wicked notion as apartheid but it is District 6 that provides the first introduction to poetry from other cultures for many of our country’s schoolchildren. The poet Tatamkhulu Afrikaa wrote the poem “Nothing’s Changed’ as a eulogy for his nation’s tragic past and a warning shot to its uncertain future, as Mandela was making those tentative steps towards parity in 1990. It can be difficult for teenage boys to show empathy at the best of times, but what the BBC did by showing actual survivors of racial segregation has offered us teachers the chance to illustrate how a poet’s use of rhythm and metaphor is rooted in the sinews and fibre of the living person rather than merely being words on a page. For that I am grateful and hopeful.
But Afrikaa’s overt message was to express the fear that although the country was rejoicing in its new dawn, the problems depressingly still remained. The years of neglect and mistrust could not be waved away with the mere release of a political prisoner. And twenty years on from that momentous event we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that the scars of apartheid are any closer to being healed. It was Mandela’s act of political and diplomatic genius, when he doffed a Springbok cap and jersey in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, that saw black South Africans feel able to celebrate in the accomplishments of a sport that was viewed as being the mostly exclusive preserve of the oppressor. I don’t purport to know many South Africans, but the few white ones I do know, have shown very little interest and enthusiasm for their black compatriots’ exploits at this World Cup. Mandela’s presentation of the World Cup on Sunday to a Dutch team, so inextricably linked to the Afrikaners may prove an ironic watershed which will see white South Africans finally embrace a game which is adored by the world at large. Whether that translates into an enduring following and support for Bafana Bafana remains to be seen.
What is clear though, is that South Africa is more than just a place of racial tension and poverty. It is breathtakingly beautiful, rich in culture and has a footballing fanbase which is equally as passionate and colourful as that of England, Brazil or Holland. And it is perhaps, this World Cup’s lasting legacy, that it will more than likely be more fondly remembered for its supporters rather than its great acts of footballing excellence on the pitch. This has truly been a fans’ World Cup and it is probably best encapsulated in the blasts of the vuvuzela. At this late stage, I can finally say that I have grown to love it and I will miss it. The problems may not be washed away after a month of celebration, but if Nelson Mandela is seen trumpeting on that famous instrument on Sunday night, perhaps then the soul of the tournament that was so cruelly taken at the outset can now be, at least partially, restored.