How far we have come

2009-07-29 00:00

“HOW do you know [that] there is no longer discrimination in sport?” asks my cheery friend in the mightily cold Vodacom Park stadium­ in Bloemfontein, where the native fans cheer on the Springboks against the All Blacks.

I confess ignorance about the answer­ even as my curiosity about the claim — “no longer discrimination­” — catches my interest­.

“When the whites shout ‘Beast’ (the black guy in the national rugby­ team) and the blacks shout ‘Booth’ (the white guy in the national­ soccer team).”

Nice one.

A national rugby match is indeed an ideal barometer to measure the pace of transformation in our country. And so here I am, a die-hard Blue Bulls fan, committing sacrilege — making my way to the gates of the Cheetahs’ stadium. I find myself surrounded by a pressing crowd of white South Africans, moving slowly towards the entrance even as we try to avoid the scores of beer bottles and cans underfoot.

The slow-moving crowd is boisterous, evidence once again that the combination of beer and rugby releases a man’s deepest inhibitions. But the atmosphere is cheerful. Young white men give way to allow my wife and me to pass.

“Groete prof,” comes several times from somewhere in the crowd, as does “Welkom, rektor.” I begin to feel at home, relaxed.

This is a far cry from my early days visiting Loftus, where occasionally a drunk fan would ask me to get him coffee — which I was quite willing to do, except it was not about the coffee — where women­ ran the real risk of a sexist comment and where the chances of a fight among drunk patrons would break out often for no particular reason.

But our memories still haunt us, for along the road are at least two groups of black South Africans­ (coloured, in the old language­) assertively displaying their All Blacks’ flags and sweaters. Unlike the former minister of Finance, they can get away with supporting a non-South African team. In fact, when I once asked a group like this about not supporting the Boks, I got a long lecture­ on the pain inflicted under apartheid’s racial laws when black rugby players were excluded from the national team.

Of course. I know this struggle from my youth when we cheered as a colourful Bryan Williams sidestepped a white Springbok. This was our way of expressing our disgust against the All Whites playing the All Blacks, as we called it then. But that was the seventies and most of us have made peace with the past, especially after that Earth-moving act of reconciliation when Nelson Mandela donned the number six rugby jersey at Ellis Park in 1995.

Inside the stadium, I cannot find a black face in the crowded seats around and ahead of me. In the heart of the country, there is still a long way to go to make this (or soccer) a truly national sport. Then the anthems start and I begin­ to wonder whether that pattern of singing would change — whites mumbling the first part of the anthem and then singing the Afrikaans part volbors. To my surprise, this is not the case. Everybody sings the entire anthem volbors, which is a mighty relief.

If there are any complaints around me, it is about the white guy that the black coach insists on selecting at number 10. In fact, after­ hitting the posts twice with his kicks, the chant for his replacement can be heard from one part of the stadium: “Morné Steyn, Morné Steyn …”

But the real shock is what happens­ on the field just ahead of the game. A wonderful, pure Afrikaans­ rendition of traditional Afrikaans songs — sung by a black man. What? There is no way you could tell from the wonderful mastery of the

Afrikaans language by this non-native speaker of Die Taal.

Nobody raises an eyebrow. He has done this for years, I’m told.

The rest is rugby and the stadium­ rocks as we celebrate the nerve-racking win over the auld enemy.

Across the Vodacom Park the unmistakeable cheer: “Beeeeaaaasssst!”

How far we’ve come.

• Jonathan Jansen is the vice chancellor of the University of the Free State and the head of the SA Institute of Race Relations.

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