An historic day in Soweto

2010-05-15 00:00

JOHN Smit, that giant of South African sport and most eloquent ambassador for his game, summed up the impact the 2010 World Cup can have on South Africa. When asked ahead of the final draw in Cape Town in December what the World Cup can do for the country, Smit replied: “It’s done so much already.”

Over the next three weeks, the World Cup will have a further beneficial side-effect that few could have predicted. Next weekend the Bulls are set play a Super 14 semi-final in Soweto. On that day, the ooms and tannies of the old Northern Transvaal will put on their bull-horned caps, pack the biltong and the naartjies in the picnic basket, and set off for Soweto … to watch rugby.

They will repeat this second groot trek of a sort from the northern suburbs to the sprawling southern township again if the Bulls play a home final at Orlando Stadium on May 29, which seems almost a certainty given the seemingly unstoppable nature of the men from Tshwane/Pretoria.

These will be historic occasions. Clint Eastwood is going to have to come back to South Africa and make another movie. Or better yet, Leon Schuster. In a case of life imitating art, if, like Schuster’s character in the 1991 film Sweet ’n Short, someone really had gone into a coma in the early 1990s then woken up today, they surely would have been boggled by the two big Bulls rugby games to be played at Orlando Stadium. And while this momentous event would in all likelihood have eventually happened some time, there’s no doubt the World Cup has brought it forward by a few years or more.

The significance of the event speaks for itself. Orlando Stadium is the traditional home of football. It sits within sight of Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world that has had two nobel laureates live on it — Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Over two weekends, intrepid Bulls fans, many of whom have no doubt never set foot in a township, will drive into Orlando along the Soweto Highway. They will no doubt be given a raucous African reception as Soweto opens its famously generous arms. They will no doubt be struck by the vibrancy of one of the world’s great townships, an international symbol of freedom, and more latterly, reconciliation. Take it from someone who once went to a live football game and ended up being a soccer writer — these can be life-altering experiences.

How can one quantify the value of such an occasion? How profound was the impact of the image of Nelson Mandela in the No. 6 rugby jersey after the 1995 Rugby World Cup final on South Africans? The first white footballers who went into townships to play for black teams, and the first multiracial soccer games in the late 1970s, helped establish some of the first tentative steps towards friendship and a national identity between black and white. When the country sees 40 000 Bulls fans sitting in Orlando Stadium, does this not start to look like some form of normality being strived for in a still largely divided nation? Can one put a price tag on that?

And it’s not just happening in Soweto. The emergence of Bloemfontein Celtic as the country’s second-best supported home soccer team after Kaizer Chiefs has created a new sporting dynamic in the charming Free State capital. Celtic fans go to Cheetahs games and wiggle their bums at the field in their own unique and downright wacky manner of enjoying a sporting game. Cheetahs players have watched Celtic play Pirates, and raved about the atmosphere.

At Bloemfontein’s Waterfront, ahead of Bafana Bafana’s Confed Cup game against Spain, Bafana fans congregated at the ticket collection centre, blew their vuvuzelas, then mingled and made a noise with rugby fans who’d come to the pubs and restaurants to watch a Springbok Test. Bafana went to watch a Bulls Super 14 game in response to the Pretoria side voicing their support for the SA soccer team.

In Pietermaritzburg, the Midlands Rugby Sub-union opened its arms and its ground to its city soccer neighbours, Maritzburg United, when Harry Gwala Stadium was being renovated. Of course, not all have been so open to the benefits of a healthy relationship between traditionally opposing sporting codes. The Pumas’ reluctance to allow Mpumalanga Black Aces to use their stadium made that rugby union look decidedly archaic.

Even the marketing-savvy Sharks, perhaps, have been a bit slow on the uptake. I don’t want to get anyone into trouble but it did seem ironic that I found myself being asked to write a positive story about the MRSU renting its ground to United because officials of the union were receiving snide comments every time they went to Durban.

The issue of the Sharks not wanting to move to Moses Mabhida Stadium is a complex one. The matters of contention include the rugby union’s 48-year lease at King’s Park, and claims at having taken exception to the city allegedly attempting to strong-arm a move. But if in five years’ time the Sharks are still cramming themselves into a sentimental — but, in all honesty, dated — stadium when one of the world’s most beautiful new venues sits empty next door, then surely the question of a laager mentality needs to be raised.

Moses Mabhida, with its ample space, would seem the perfect venue to be used in harmony by all the city’s sporting codes. Whatever issues there are, there must be a way to come to a settlement that is acceptable, and ultimately surely also very beneficial, to all parties.

Elsewhere though, it’s a marvelous occasion for South African sport. The Bulls are the Barcelona of rugby. Their fans are as passionate as those of Boca Juniors. Soweto, no doubt, will give them a welcome that befits their status.

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