Bloemfontein stands united, Port Elizabeth falls divided

2008-03-29 00:00

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Bloemfontein is the capital of the Free State, a province with only 2,9 million people (6,2% of the total population) and a gross regional product of just R69 billion, equivalent to only 5,5% of national GDP; and yet, in sport, the city consistently punches above its weight, producing a competitive provincial cricket team, the Currie Cup rugby champions and two well-supported, successful PSL football clubs.

Port Elizabeth is the major hub of the Eastern Cape, a province with many more people (6,9 million, 14,6% of the population), much more money (gross regional product of R88 billion, 8,1% of national GDP) and markedly more political clout than the Free State; yet, in sport, the city is battling, producing a reasonable cricket side, an underperforming also-ran rugby team and not even one club in the PSL.

This tale of two cities requires an explanation.

Any suggestion that Bloemfontein simply produces better quality players can be instantly dismissed. The schools and sports clubs of the Eastern Cape, in suburbs and townships alike, have been churning out talented, committed players for decades.

The region has never lacked sporting pedigree and passion. Was EP not the province that bred and nurtured Graeme Pollock, Danie Gerber, Temba Ledwaba and others? Was EP rugby not so vibrant and strong that the essentially white provincial team regularly rumbled visiting Lions and All Blacks while, on the other side of the racial divide, the game thrived in adversity at respected clubs such as Spring Rose RFC. Is it scarcely two decades since Kepler Wessels arrived and forged an excellent EP cricket side that dominated the domestic game?

What has gone wrong?

Perhaps the dramatically different sporting fortunes of these two major cities provides evidence of what can go so spectacularly right when the great South African dream of unity, reconciliation and ubuntu actually materialises and works, and what can go so depressingly wrong when divided communities fail to find each other.

In Bloemfontein, it appears as if, notwithstanding the over-publicised antics of some foolish students and their video camera, a kind of harmony and trust has developed between black and white, between Cheetahs rugby and Celtics football, with both teams happily sharing a home at Vodacom Park.

The sense of unity creates positive energy on all sides, local business rallies to the cause, spectators roll in, everybody recognises lasting strength lies in working together; and, as a result of all this, the local teams generally win.

In contrast, it sometimes seems as if, even 15 years after the joyful declaration of unity in sport, too many of the sports people of Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape remain stuck in their respective trenches, mistrusting and resenting one another.

“The blacks have taken over EP cricket and ruined everything,” says a white former EP stalwart in Walmer. “They’re only interested in politics and trying to make money on the side. They don’t care about the game, like we do. Now we don’t even have our own EP team; we have to share a franchise with East London.”

Twenty minutes’ drive away in New Brighton, a million miles away in mentality, a black man who has given his entire life to rugby, shakes his head.

“The whites wanted to keep everything for themselves,” he says. “When they saw that was not politically possible, they lost interest and walked away, taking their knowledge and their sponsors with them. If I look at the Eastern Cape, I reckon we have become the most racially divided part of South Africa.”

Perhaps nobody should be too surprised that what is perceived to be an inherently conservative white community and what is perceived to be an inherently politicised black community should have failed to find each other and failed to develop enduring structures to attract sponsors and support, and unleash the immense sporting potential of their region, and, as a result of all this, should have failed to win.

In Port Elizabeth today, the historic challenge is to reverse the negative tide, to look at what Bloemfontein has achieved in sport, to trust each other and work together, to unite and to start winning.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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