Two different sports, two different matches, two different race groups making up the numbers at two different stadiums

2009-10-31 00:00

GOOD morning and welcome to another of the uniquely South African sporting days when, despite almost everyone’s best intentions, blacks go there and whites go there.

More than 15 years after the dawn of the new democracy, the end of apartheid, the birth of the Rainbow Nation et cetera, et cetera, the national sporting landscape remains clearly separated by colour. Today, the overwhelming majority of black South Africans are excitedly looking forward to the Soweto derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, while the overwhelming majority of white South Africans are focused on the Currie Cup final between the Blue Bulls and the Free State Cheetahs.

Among the 99% black soccer crowd at the new Orlando Stadium, many people will not even be aware the rugby showpiece is taking place and hardly anybody will care what happens in Pretoria two hours later. Among the 99% white rugby crowd at Loftus Versfeld, few would be able even to name the clubs playing in the derby and if anyone did wonder aloud what was the score in Soweto, hardly anyone would be able tell them.

On Monday morning, the Beeld newspaper will be packed from front to back with reports and photographs of what will most likely be the latest Bulls triumph with a very brief report on the soccer, and the Sowetan will be full of reaction and news from the derby with just a few lines on the rugby.

In these 15 years, precisely what has changed?

Not much, it seems. There are a few signs of convergence — The Star gamely previewed today’s matches as “170 minutes of sporting magic” and went to the trouble of setting up a photograph of two of the rugby players in Chiefs and Pirates kit posing together with two of the footballers in rugby jerseys... and yet, and yet, in practice and in reality, in so many millions of hearts and minds across the country, is it not still the truth that South Africa remains a sporting nation profoundly divided by race? Is it not the case that blacks follow soccer, and whites follow rugby?

By and large, yes. However, maybe something has changed in recent years. Maybe tomorrow afternoon, there will be an increasing number of upwardly-mobile middle-class black South Africans who won’t be attending the local soccer because it’s not their thing and who won’t be following the rugby either because it is certainly not their thing — instead, they’ll be putting their feet up on the sofa at home and watching Arsenal play Tottenham in the English Premier League on their giant plasma television.

Does any of this really matter? It may be true that too many South Africans remain unhealthily obsessed by race and colour and perceived divisions. In a free country where anybody can do what they like, such as SA in 2009, does it matter that certain groups like this and others like that?

The lines are not so clearly drawn but, in England today, the social reality is that many well-heeled, middle-class people will choose to watch club rugby while most of the working class people will be following the football. That’s just how it is and, beyond a few sociology academics, it’s not an issue.

South Africa is different because of its history of bitter division and because of a general conviction, repeatedly articulated by politicians and genuinely shared by most citizens, that the country needs to unite and importantly be seen to unite if it is to thrive and succeed – and, in recent years, there has been no easier or more visible place for blacks and whites to join hands and ‘unite’ than in sport.

Flag-waving united support of the national soccer, cricket and rugby teams has obviously been positive and welcome – and similarly mixed crowds may well be a feature of the Fifa World Cup next year – yet the impact remains essentially cosmetic. As today’s matches will demonstrate, very few people are united by sport at club level.

Will we ever see a genuinely mixed crowd at a Soweto derby or a Currie Cup final? The answer, perhaps, is only in a generation, or two. And by then, all going well, nobody will care.


Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and general manager of SABC sport, and has been involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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