The F-word: No need to hold back in democracy

2013-07-08 10:00

Even if you are not much of a football fan, chances are you might as a consequence of the Confederations Cup in Brazil have heard of a young star called Neymar.

Apart from being named Man of the Tournament, Neymar made headlines when he backed protesters who believed that the Brazilian government had spent money on an expensive jamboree at the expense of the social needs of the poorest in that country.

Brazil and South Africa vie for the title of the most unequal society on the planet. An endorsement by an icon such as Neymar must have embarrassed the government and emboldened the protesters.

His national team-mates added their voices to Neymar’s support for the protesters.

It may very well be that the remarks were part of a public relations exercise but it was still important for someone of his stature to express a view about something many of his countrymen felt strongly about.

I am waiting for the day when an important sports star will have the courage of their convictions and lend their considerable public stature to a social cause.

By this I mean something more meaningful than the obligatory “study hard, believe in your dreams and stay off drugs” message.

It is almost unheard of in post-apartheid South Africa for sport or entertainment icons to voice their opinions on social or political issues, yet it was ­ big-name artists like Sting, Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton and a host of others who, by agreeing to play at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday concert in London in 1988, contributed immensely to the international awareness of the evil of apartheid and expedited its demise.

That is why I would rather have a Steve Hofmeyr resisting the renaming of Tshwane and its streets than black artists whose love for cash and a good time blinds and gags them when a government department fails to deliver books in time or sacrifices its young in futile wars in faraway lands.

Of course, not every celebrity is or must become a social activist. But it helps when someone who has a face and a name people remember endorses a cause.

That is why big companies – from sports apparel to soft drinks – are willing to break the bank to get prominent and successful sports personalities to endorse their goods.

In South Africa, our celebrities seem too interested in the buttered side of their fame and they will not support any cause no matter how much it deeply affects the people who support them.

Take xenophobia, for example. Millions of Kaizer Chiefs fans are excited at the prospect of their Zimbabwean former star striker Knowledge Musona rejoining the club.

When he, Zambian Isaac Chansa at Orlando?Pirates or Moroka Swallows’ Greg Etafia (Nigeria) are scoring goals or saving them for their clubs, they are “our boys”, and are toasted in townships and villages across the country.

But if they opened shops in a township, they would just be labelled “amakwerekwere” who “steal our women and jobs”, and therefore deserving of being driven out of the neighbourhood like rabid dogs.

Up to now, clubs and the league pretend that it is someone else’s business.

The league and the clubs are not alone in this regard. There is a tendency to want to reserve politics for politicians and analysts only.

That is why it becomes uncomfortable for some to fathom why someone as openly flawed as Kenny Kunene would dare express an opinion about how his country is governed.

Those that have forgotten we are a democracy carry on as if one needs to pass some test before one can be “allowed” to have and express an opinion.

That anyone would want to question Kunene’s right to have and express an opinion about his country speaks more about that person’s understanding than it does about Kunene.

In many ways, the likes of Neymar and Kunene are a stark reminder to those who have forgotten that participatory democracy is everyone’s business and we are all qualified to say what we think.

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