There have been numerous milestones in South Africa’s journey from a pariah state characterized by the most brutal form of settler colonialism and white supremacy to a young democracy struggling to find its rightful place in a the post new world order. The release of Nelson Mandela from Victor Verster prison twenty years ago marked the first chapter in South Africa’s new beginning. As the tide turned against apartheid and power was transferred to a democratic majority through elections in 1994 and the adoption of new egalitarian rights based constitution in 1996, South Africa has laid claim to distinguish itself amongst the community of nations as an exceptional nation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that followed, to examine atrocities committed under apartheid and during the liberation struggle, has been held up as a model process for transitional justice.
One of the roots to the notion of South African exceptionalism springs from the notion developed by the former General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) Joe Slovo that South Africa had suffered a colonialism of a ‘special type.’ Developed in a treatise called, ‘The Road to South African Freedom: Programme of the South African Communist Party, published in 1963, colonialism of a special type posed the view that despite the fact that South Africa was an independent republic and not a colonial territory, with power concentrated in the hands of a white minority government, South Africa was for all intents and purposes still a colony. South Africa was an exceptional case and liberation in South Africa was not going to come through the lowering of one colonial flag and the raising of a new democratic flag, handshakes all around. Rather, the unseating of a settler minority government would come through a protracted struggle involving an exile armed struggle, an internal resistance movement, and a growing tide of international condemnation and solidarity.
As the pillars of apartheid began to crumble through the growing internal resistance movement and international sanctions, South Africa retained the moniker of exceptionalism through a negotiated settlement, or what history has represented as a peaceful transfer of power. While the bloody nature, atrocities and gross violations of human rights that took place in the period between 1990 and 1994, were recorded and honored through the TRC, ultimately, it was negotiations as opposed to the barrel of the gun that paved the way for the new South Africa to emerge – exceptional, idealistic and prepared to offer a new vision for Africa and the developing world.
In many ways the gloss of the 1990s had begun to fade as the growing pains of a young democracy began to emerge. While democratic gains have been consolidated through the formations of institutions of democracy such as the Constitutional Court and the provision of basic services such as electricity and housing to tens of thousands previously denied such basic rights, the scale of the problem facing South Africa have been massive including the depths of poverty for the majority of the population, the HIV/Aids pandemic, high violent crime rates and growing corruption across the public and private sector.
Sixteen years on into the new democracy and South Africa’s claims to exceptionalism have come under threat, or more pessimistically, in terms of crime and HIV, was the world beginning to understand South Africa as exceptional for the wrong reason? Then the arrival of the FIFA 2010 World Cup and a new milestone in South Africa’s narrative of exceptionalism. Ke Nako — now is the time, the first African World Cup. While the first World Cup in Africa was always going to be special and different, what has been one of the most interesting aspects of the tournament has been the impact the global event is having on South Africa’s understanding of itself within the context its post-apartheid national identity and consciousness.
In the build-up to the tournament, at least since the beginning of this year, the country officially adopted Fridays as ‘Football Fridays’ wherein people were encouraged to wear bright yellow, Bafana Bafana jerseys to their workplace. As many workplaces made small investments in buying South African soccer jerseys on mass for their employees the emergence of the so-called yellow brigade, came across as an equalizer of sorts, where communities across the race and class barriers adopted Bafana Bafana as their team of affiliation, many despite the fact that they had little or no interest in football prior to the arrival of the World Cup on these shores. There is something about putting on that football top, which binds an individual to a team, through this notion of affiliation creating an emotional bond and has a knock of effect of creating community, where previously it may not have existed. In a context where race, class and gender divide, one wonders if this form of benign nationalism or affiliation can actually create bonds which are real and enduring?
One of the enduring messages being heard on talk radio and around the bars around Johannesburg during the tournament is this sense of unity amongst South Africans not only in their support of the national side Bafana Bafana or the World Cup generally, but also this notion of unity of broader national community that has found purpose through the staging of this event. As South Africa had drifted towards becoming yet another struggling new democracy on the margins on a global economy in crisis, the World Cup provided a national project or focal point which in a new way through this universal cultural unifier or leveler, football or the beautiful game, provided South Africa with a new vision of what it could mean to be an exceptional or winning nation.
With a massive infrastructure spend which has led to a revitalized Bus Rapid Transport system for major centres like Johannesburg and Cape Town, new and upgraded airports, passenger trains, improvements to the road networks not to mention the significant spend of stadiums, the potential exists for a tangible World Cup legacy for the people of South Africa.
What remains less tangible is how the social commitments of affiliation, particularly the massive support across the colour line for the Bafana Bafana and the transference of this affiliation as the tournament progressed to the knock out rounds, to Ghana, adopted locally as BaGhana BaGhana, will settle. For one of the first times in post-democratic South Africa, there seemed to be a genuine privileging by minority group in South Africa of an African identity, as represented through the Black Stars of Ghana. Stories of South Africa’s weeping at Ghana’s defeat on penalties at the hands an unjust and determined Uruguay side, reveal the depths of the affiliation felt by so many.
In May 2008, South African society was traumatized by xenophobic attacks that left scores of people dead and injured and thousands of others displaced in makeshift refugee camps. During the final week of the World Cup, we have witnessed an increase in unsubstantiated media stories alleging the potential for xenophobic attacks following the World Cup. Such reports and the possibility of new attacks, stand in stark contrast to the warm welcome and hospitality offered by South Africa to the hundreds of thousands of international visitors during the past month. What has been heartening has been the statements and supposed contingency plans being put in place by state actors in response to these threats, contrasted to the neglect and non-responsiveness when the initial attacks to place.
For South Africa to truly ensure a positive legacy to the economic, social and emotional investments made during the build up to the World Cup and during the past four weeks, there needs to be a concerted efforts by leaders, activists an ordinary community members to tap into the pride and unity which has emerged through the World Cup. For South Africa to remain on course to attaining the mantle of a winning nation, the energy, the vitality that has emerged through the World Cup, needs to be captured and channeled into a reinvigorated notion of South African exceptionalism, premised less on an understanding of the past or by looking to the developed world and seeking to mock or mirror achievements within those societies but rather premised on an understanding of the social and developmental needs of the country including job creation, a well functioning educational and health care system, good governance and respect for the rule of law and zero tolerance for corruption.
The naysayers prior to the World Cup, particularly in large sections of the British, Australian and German press questioned South Africa, a developing nation, an African nations ability to host a mega event of the magnitude of the World Cup. Despite a few incidents, including the debacle at the King Shaka Airport in Durban prior to the Semifinal between Germany and Spain, where five full commercial aircraft were sent back to Johannesburg and Cape Town, due to private jets taking up space on the runway, the World Cup on all accounts has been a staggering success – particularly for the organizers and the pockets of their corporate sponsors. With the lack of transparency at the highest levels of international football governing body, locally, we will never know the depths of the corporate profits generated on this African stage.
Interestingly, as Spain and Holland compete to be crown world champion in the Final, the irony is too rich to think about the links between that the middle era global capitalism and the centrality of the corporation, the Dutch East India Company or the VOC, and modern day capitalism and its global corporate footprint in Africa, namely FIFA. The VOC was the advanced articulation of international capital in the 17th century. Today in 2010, as capital surges from crisis to crisis, the ultimate articulation of the cultural expression of modern day neo-liberalism finds expression again at the tip of Africa, through FIFA and the World Cup.
So as Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 for VOC, so does FIFA arrive today and on its final stage a contest between Spain and Holland — whose early links are intertwined with European settlement in South Africa. Almost 360 years later, we see the conquest of world played out again on this southern African stage between countries and cultures which have a deeply intertwined history in a world historical sense and in a footballing sense.
As the World Cup can claim success as a global commercial and sporting success, the enduring question for South Africa remains the question of legacy. South Africa has proven once again that on numerous levels it remains an exceptional society. South African exceptionalism going forward however should not be judged on its ability to host mega events, or more symbolically by asserting its right to be around the table when the leading powers determine the course of global events be these economic or political. South African exceptionalism going forward must rather be premised on fulfilling the promises made within the post liberation moment, namely that the masses of South Africans who live economically marginal lives with limited access to the realization of basic rights guaranteed by the South African constitution, such as access to basic services, education and health — receive a better life.
One can have few illusions about the direct pay off that the successful hosting of the World Cup can have towards ensuring a better life for all. What remains to be seen however, is how as a society, South Africa can leverage this tremendous positive energy — generated internally and as received from all corners of the globe by those who either visited South Africa, or marveled at its hospitality through the global media coverage — to ensure this revitalized notion of national reconciliation and unity remains and a common purpose to deliver on democratic liberation.
Karam Singh is an anti corruption practitioner, soccer enthusiast and blogger residing in South Africa since 2001. He is the co-founder and co-director of the TriContinental Film Festival, an annual event in South Africa focusing on human rights and social justice documentary, feature and short films from Latin America, Africa and Asia.