The clock ticks down. A hush descends. Thousands of kitted-out citizens – some in the stands, others on the edge of their couches at home – wait with bated breath. Silence. Another second ticks by and… they’re on their feet. Cheering. Carried along on a rising swell of elation.
Moments of National Pride
While sport of all kinds plays an important role in many countries, there are few places where sport is as tightly woven into the fabric of society as South Africa. The moment described above could describe the 24th of June 1995, the final match in South Africa’s first-ever Rugby World Cup on home soil when the Francois Pienaar’s Springboks defeated the supposedly unbeatable New Zealand All Blacks in the dying seconds of the match. On home soil. With then-president Nelson Mandela in the stands, wearing a Springbok jersey.
It could just as easily describe the euphoric scenes that took place in 2019, when the South African rugby team, led by inspirational captain Siya Kolisi, triumphed over England to become only the second country to lift the Webb Ellis Cup three times. Or when Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the iconic first goal of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, an event that will go down as one of the most joyous and enjoyable soccer tournaments of all time – vuvuzelas and all. Or 2016, when we watched, with fists raised, as Caster Semenya outstripped her competition to take gold at the Summer Olympics.
All these and many more inspirational moments are poignant moments in our nation’s history. But just as poignant as are those that remind us of the work we still need to do as a country.
A Country Divided
Sport in South Africa has always sat at the intersection of unity and division – at once capable of bringing people together who, outside of their love for the jersey, have very little in common, and of exposing the deep, unresolved tensions that run rife through our still-fragile society.
The reality is that sport in this country is still largely divided along racial lines. One need only look at South Africa’s top three sporting codes as evidence: Rugby and cricket fans are primarily white South Africans, while soccer is definitely the most popular sport amongst South Africans of colour. Close to 100 000 fans crowd into the iconic FNB Stadium (a.k.a. Soccer City) for South Africa’s biggest soccer derby – Orlando Pirates versus Kaizer Chiefs – with millions more watching from home.
Thankfully, this trend is changing. Thanks to the stellar work of people like Siya Kolisi and director of rugby (and former Springbok head coach) Rassie Erasmus who champion representation in our national teams, there is a renewed sense of togetherness that has infused our sporting culture.
Similarly, along gender lines, South Africa’s women’s cricket team, the Proteas Women, has been flying our country’s flag high over recent years with a series of impressive performances that have outshone their male counterparts and given local cricket fans a new team to root for.
United Against Adversity
It’s not only on the playing field that sport has demonstrated its ability to unite our nation. Another example can be seen in the way that South Africans from all over the country came together to support our Olympic hero, Caster Semenya, in her years-long conflict with the IAAF.
Semenya, whose body naturally produces more testosterone than other women, has been subjected to near-constant scrutiny and harassment from all manner of journalists, speakers, officials and other competitors in the wake of her success. During the maelstrom of targeted and often-abusive criticism, South Africans took to the Twitterverse to back their favourite runner, throwing their support behind Semenya with a shared fervour rooted in their desire to see this awe-inspiring athlete treated with the respect and dignity that every person deserves.
The way that Semenya’s countrymen and women jumped to her defence says a lot about how South Africans care for one another. At times, we may have our differences, and there is still much to work through before our country can truly recognise the vision that was promised to us in 1994, but sport reminds us that in the moments that matter – the nail-biting, breath-taking moments that bring tears to our eyes and cheers to our lips – we all share one thing: being lucky enough to call ourselves South African.