Na'eem Jeenah
Na'eem Jeenah

From a bitter, twisted person: my blood remains red; I could care less about the Boks

Days ago, I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be bombarded with rugby news until, at least, the end of next week. That’s fine. I suppose our national rugby team getting into (and possibly winning) the World Cup final is a big deal. To each her own. It’s not my thing; I don’t know what I was doing or where I was when the Boks won the World Cup in 1995 and I don’t care; I don’t know where I will be and what I will be doing tomorrow when they play and I don’t care. There are many that do care and I don’t deny them that right.

That resignation also meant that despite my own sentiments about rugby and the Boks, I also decided not to say anything about it. Those who love rugby or sports or who feel that rugby is an indication of their patriotism are welcome to wallow in it. And wallowing they do. Just look at which posts on Thought Leader get the most views.

But I decided yesterday that I had to break my silence. When my patriotism is questioned, when a journalist claims that winning the 1995 World Cup “was up there with the release of the Rivonia trialists” (my guess is he has no clue what that release meant to black people in this country) and when a marketing guru for Brand South Africa (huh?) says on national radio that all South Africans support the Boks and that tomorrow’s match will be a “seminal moment” for all South Africans except for a few “bitter, twisted people”, then I have to say something in defence of those of us who don’t care.

(As an aside, I don’t think she understood what the term “seminal” means, even though she used it numerous times, including in reference to the 1995 World Cup win. The term refers to something from which other things develop. I don’t know what grew out of the 1995 win or what could grow out of tomorrow’s match. I also don’t like the word because of both the obvious and underlying androcentric bias; I’d love to hear someone talk of an “ovarian moment”.)

In the interests of disclosure, let me list all the things I know (or think I know; some of the following might be just wrong) about tomorrow’s game:
1. The South African rugby team, known as the Springboks (a much better name than the “Proteas” but one that still evokes memories of apartheid for some people), will be playing the Rugby World Cup final against the English national team. I don’t know what the English team is called.
2. The match will take place in Paris, France, tomorrow.
3. There are four black players in the Bok squad, of whom two — Brian Habana and some Pietersen person — will be in the starting line-up.
4. I don’t know the names of any of the other Bok players.
5. If Habana scores even one try in this match, he will have beaten Jonah Lomu’s record for the number of tries scored in a World Cup tournament.
6. The Boks’ coach is Jake White.
7. South Africa got to the final after beating the Argentinian team in the semifinal.

That’s about it.

But my ignorance is not the main issue here. The main issue is the notion that one’s love for one’s country is determined by whether one becomes obsessed with a national sports team.

(Incidentally, I can’t recall our participation in the soccer or cricket World Cup being regarded in the same way as markers of patriotism.)

Tomorrow, I will not be spending the day preparing to watch the final; I will be participating in a legal capacitation workshop for representatives of various poor communities in Gauteng who have faced state repression. Most of them and their families have sacrificed for this country more than any player or official of the Bok team. And they continue to suffer for the dream of a better South Africa. Each one of them, I suggest, has more patriotism than most of the members of the Bok team put together. Many of them will not be able to watch the final on TV tomorrow — assuming they would want to — because they do not have electricity in their homes and they don’t live close enough to sports bars to watch there.

Tomorrow, I will be spending the day with true patriots of our country, who have been repeatedly silenced when trying to express their views, and I doubt any of them will be wearing green.

I don’t care about rugby, but I do care about the welfare of the people of my country and I do care about the violations of their human rights. If that makes me a “bitter, twisted” person rather than a patriot, then so be it.

This morning I heard a message of encouragement from Nelson Mandela to the Boks. I have no problem with him making such a statement nor with our president being in Paris to give the team moral support. But I laughed when Mandela said: “We are a winning nation.” Excuse me? A winning nation? Millions of our people do not have houses; millions are unemployed; millions live below the poverty line; millions are victims of gruesome crimes — including murder and rape; millions of us live with HIV/Aids and thousands of us die every week because of it. We are a nation that doesn’t care for the welfare of its individual members — especially not for the welfare of its most vulnerable and weak. I don’t think winning the Rugby World Cup will make us a “winning nation”.

A winning nation will be one where society ensures that the basic needs of all its people are taken care of, where we are all able to live in dignity and safety, where our relationships with each other are characterised by compassion and cooperation. The pride that comes from being able to stomp the sports team of another country into the ground does not make us a winning nation.

And this nice-sweet thing of how we South Africans are all one, rainbow nation united in supporting our rugby team, our boys … frankly, it’s crap! After the game is over, I and millions of jubilant or depressed rugby fans will sleep in warm beds in bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, in suburbs. Some of those who will be in the workshop with me tomorrow will (try to) sleep in rat-infested shacks! We are not one united nation. And pretending to unite around a national sports team does nothing to create real unity among our people. The proponents of such an idea think that it will paper over the very real problems of national identity and unity; it won’t.

And I don’t even want to get into questions about transformation and demographic representation in the rugby team. Suffice it to say that a winning nation is not one whose main concern is its sports team winning a match but, rather, one that is seriously concerned about whether all its members have access to making it into that team.

We need to redefine patriotism. We need to redefine winning. We need to redefine reconciliation. And we need to redefine what it means to be part of the “South African nation”. Support of the largely white rugby team is not enough of a criterion.

  • ‘Muzi Mohasi

    no one can blame anyone for what they believe in, or atleast i think so,as a resident of the new south africa…a country of democracy.
    so if i were to say i hate the boks i dont think any right would be reserved for anyone who would want to criticise me and tell me how much of a south AFRICAN i’m not.

    the only thing that’s stopping our involvement in the democracy is lack of acknowledgement of freedom to speech. with all the other rights being so ”aired” daily,i seldom,if never, hear my right of freedom to speech being ”aired”.
    so you guys are those concious samaritans who realize that if at all we are going to do it, then we should do it all the way…and for that i thank you.
    Bravo!! job well done.

  • Graham

    An excellent piece to read for an ‘engelsman’ who spent a significant part of my childhood in SA and will always love her. Of course sport is no substitute for social equality and justice, but it can certainly be a powerful marker for the empowerment of the young, and provide a feelgood factor in the areas that a country excels. For South Africa, ink in cricket and rugby at any given time – for other sports pencil in your wishlist as you will. God Bless in your endeavours in making South Africa the country it should be for all.
    PS. England’s rugby team is referrred to as ENGLAND. (For an anthropomorphic turf war we happily refer you to our cousins in Australia.) Here’s to a great final.

  • Peter Mansfield

    The Rugby World Cup final offers South Africans one of its few Rainbow Moments – when a great number of – not all – South Africans of all races are rooting for the same side.

    Let us try and enjoy those few moments that offer a temporary respite from corruption, crime (hambe kahle Lucky Dube and others) and (lately) the President’s obsessive protection of suspected criminals apparently because he hopes they will support him against Zuma in the Rumble in Limpopo.

  • Walton

    Good stuff, you’re right of course. I have actually made a real effort this time around to care about the rugby, mostly because I think SA needs some good news and I want to be part of it, but it’s been hard.

    But you can get your anti-imperialist rocks off by seeing England being beaten.

  • Ndumiso Ngcobo

    Na’eem, you sell this offering short. Bitter? Twisted? Utter bollocks. This article has only thing to offer. The truth.

    Peter Mansfield? Good Lord, that’s a blast from the past (if one grew up in Durban).

  • Lehlohonolo

    An excellent read. The only notion i disagree with is that of patriotism (true, false and in its many guises). I battle to understand why any of us need to be patriotic as this concept separates us from our fellow human beings. Mr Selebi is patrotic, and so is Advocate Pikoli. Brett Kebble was called a patriot by the Deputy President. See why i struggle? I look forward to enjoying a game of rugby, and cheering the team in geen and gold because they play beatifully. A patriot i am not! I would love to embrace all human beings on earth irrespective of the passport they carry (or not, depending on the whims of the Department of Home Affairs).

  • Ebrahim Harvey

    Good piece. I did a critique of this notion in a piece early this year for the Cape Times, titled “Time to question the meaning of patriotism” (February).

  • Tumelo Qhali

    I fully concure with your thinking, and thank you for bringing it to the fore. Although I think its important for us to come together as a country, I dont think that we should wait for sporting events to do so. South Africans would do better to come together in their fight against inequality, poverty and joblessness. Very few people seem to be passionate about the eradication of these.

    Another phenomenon I find very interesting, is that white people never ever support our national soccer team, but there seem to be an expectation that black people should come en masse and support the cricket and rugby national teams. There is something wrong here.

    I really think that as South Africans, we should put first things first, and get our house in order first. We will never be a winning nation, as you rightly say, unless we deal with crime, unemployment, lack of housing and basic living infrastructure, and inequality. I think our government should focus on addressing these, as well as ensuring a good educatio for all our children.

  • http://na Stuart

    Tumelo, I find you comment about whites not supporting the national soccer team absolutely stunning and a shocking generalisation. Where have you been? Everyone gets behind our national teams as far as I know. I, like most other South Africans, am a fair weather supporter and so if they performed a bit better they might find greater support – exactly the same way it works in rugby and cricket by the way. I also think the quota system has no place in sport or in business for that matter if you want to compete and win. Put the people into the positions that are best qualified or skilled to do the job – period.

    I believe whole heartedly that it is time in SA that racial identification be outlawed, South Africans be united in a stand against crime, racial and gender discrimination and cultural and religious intolerance. Enough now with this black white issue, it’s a subject that can have no winner except to insite devilish conflict – I think you’d agree it’s something we do not need more of.

    Rather let’s look at real issues like addressing poverty to close the gap between have’s and have nots – which IMHO is the route of all criminal activity in SA.

    Short of this, keep refering to a person’s colour (which he or she had absolutely no control over to start) and then in 10 years time we’ll need WEE to settle the unhappy kids who were born white and cannot get jobs as a result of their skin colour. What are we teaching our kids???? Religion, race, gender, age and health all conspire to segregate us, let’s show some tolerance and stop making everything a racial struggle.

    I love my country, I’m an African and I think it’s time we contributed to a better country beyond expecting the government to do it alone. Sports teams that are succesful get the support, give hope and inspire our youth as well as our nation – as Bryan Habana himself said….

  • Joy-Mari Cloete

    Thank you! I share your sentiments. Unvoiced, of course, though I shall attempt to rectify that and come out of the “I think rugby is overrated” closet.

  • Walton

    I agree with the above two comments – the South African soccer team is, unfortunately, not very good. I am pretty certain if we ever made it to the world cup final, the whole country, black and white, would unite behind them.

    I think we need to put more into developing our soccer teams, but it’s difficult to expect people to suport a team that under performs.

    Currently, we have the best rugby team in the world. Why can’t we celebrate this example of South African excellence?

  • Kevin

    Hi Na’eem, thank you for a thought provoking article. I appreciate its integrity. Firstly, I must say that I am a rugby supporter, and was over the moon that we won on Saturday. Having said that, however, there are some points where I agree with you. Firstly, I agree that we live not only in a polarised society, but one where we have lost some of our soul. The level of crime, shoddy service delivery, homelessness, high walls, no walls etc. are all headlines for this, but its personal face is in the eyes of the street kids and aids orphans haunted by deprivation; in the courage of those who “will (try to) sleep in rat-infested shacks”. I agree that a truly winning nation would be making a much more concerted, thoughtful, active and sustained effort to eradicate these ills, not only cosmetically, but structurally and fundamentally – as a whole. Why is this situation so? That debate would fill a tome, no doubt. Where I disagree with you is the fact that sporting events like SA winning the rugby world cup are irrelevant. I think one could make the mistake of being as blind to the positives that arise out of our amazing sporting (or cultural, or social etc.) achievements, as the ‘winning’ hype is blind to, or might be used to gloss over, the underbelly of SA. Whether its rugby, or soccer, or cricket that puts on display the fact that we as South Africans can participate on the world stage with the best of the best (and believe me, our rugby team is the best of the best right now, with all that implies in terms of technical skill, tactical brilliance, coaching etc.), I don’t care. The fact is, winning the world cup does send the message that we can be the best if we want to. And I know that, for me, it made a difference. A big difference. With so much that is wrong, let me also know that there is much that is right. Our rugby team gave me that message (as I wish our soccer team would too – to answer the hopelessly over generalised comment made by Tumelo). The trick we need to accomplish, is to take this “winning” attitude, as a nation, and use it to truly solve what are, in the end, much bigger issues than points on the scoreboard. If anything, I think we should be learning from our rugby team how to build a patient, intelligent, sustainable strategic plan (managed by credible and skilled people) to address our social ills head on. Believe it or not, our rugby team DID prevail against the odds to become as good as they are, I fully support doing the same as an entire nation.

  • Bruce

    Na’eem, I have no doubt that you have some serious childhood nerd issues to work through.

    Sport is more of a unifying vehicle than I have ever witnessed or experienced in my life. Since I can remember, I have played sport with people of all races. As an instrument of tolerance and acceptance, I have not seen a better substitute. It should be encouraged on all levels unconditionally.

    Furthermore, if you are unable to see the national healing and unifying ability something like winning a world cup has, then you need to have those specs of yours checked. Get out the library for ten minutes and pay attention to whats going on around you. And I challenge you to attend one of the ticker tape victory parades this week in SA and then tell me you dont get a lump in your throat. Cos if you dont, then its you that has the issue, not the “patriotic” rugby supporters.

    PS Your comments about soccer are beyond ludicrous, I have watched as many games at FNB Stadium as I have at Ellis Park. Get with the programme.


  • Safeeyah Kharsany

    I totally agree… (despite donning green as well) Illusions of a ‘winning’, united nation won’t help South Africa at all. It just adds to a greater denial of what’s actually happening in our country.
    And, in any case, where did all these bok supporters come from?… are we just so desperate for a convenient antidote to the bitter truth?
    A headline I read comes to mind: South Africa – A B-grade Soap Opera!

  • dionysusstoned

    cool blog naeem

  • Christopher-John Bompas

    Naeem and my fellow commentators, I refuse to be an apologist for the Springboks. I think that winning the world cup did a great service for our beautiful country!

    It gave me an incredible joy to see kids from Yeoville kicking around a rugby ball. These children don’t have much but they have hope. Sport gives people hope as it keeps them away from alcohol, drugs and many other malicious distractions. Before you accuse me of not knowing what I’m talking about, I am a youth coordinator at my church who seen youth fall down the wayside. I believe further transformation will take place those in authority focus on developing rugby in poor neighborhoods like mine, rather running around crazily for players of colour.

    Like you, I think that the journalist who said the winning the world cup was up there with the release of the Rivonia trialists has no idea about the value of our freedom and our history. But is it not a credit to our history that all South Africans can appreciate the sport.

    I acknowledge that this is no longer 1995. Twelve years have passed and our people face many of the same trials, challenges and imbalances and many new ones, for example, the scourge of Aids. However, overall our nation has made progress. I think that the optimism of the 1995 World cup actually has played a role in the growth of our country.

    I agree with you when you argue that our nation does have its priorities on its head (i.e. speculation about renaming the national teams -really!). I think that addressing poverty is the most important and most noble task of our nation. However, these fruits are hard earned. Sometimes people simply need a reason to be proudly South African, despite the drugs, violence, poverty and unemployment of our country.

    I respect the work that you do. I think that winning for our nation means actualizing the ideals of the Freedom Carter. Yet, I ask you to be less morose as you are killing our patriotism (I appreciate that patriotism is more than just sporting a springbok shirt but getting down to what actually matters) not to mention your own.

    Even superficial and short-lived gestures of unity inspire the kind optimism that builds houses, feeds families and creates jobs. Go amabokoboko!

  • Lavani

    no wonder the is no indian rugby player

  • Imtiyaaz

    You have a serious problem boet. you were unhappy bcoz ur bosses sent you to a stupid workshop – that is so old school – workshops. like telling someone you were in exile. come on boet – it’s 2007. catch a wake up. we have forgotten about robben island and Rivonia trialists and what all. it a whole new ballgame. and rugby is part of it, just like cricket. sorry Naeem, but you need to open your mind up and realise that all the old guys are dying – new things are happening. forget about apartheid now please. we are moving on. and teh rugby was da bomb. sorry but you lost out, among 5 million safricans YOU were bored – shame.

  • Percival Ngcobo

    I would like to compliment you on a well written article.

    I am a 25 year old black South African, educated in a multi-racial school. I, like the many who suffer and sleep in rat infested huts am a South African. I am as patriotic as those who have lost loved one to violence, I am as patriotic as the many young men and women who live these shores to acquire new skills and eventually come back to contribute their skills toour country.

    I love the game of rugby. I see our winning the world cup as a great marketing tool to the few millions from aroung the world who sat and watched the world cup. If they did not know where South Africa was, now they know. Those who had never planned to visit our shores might just have changed their minds.

    Are you suggesting that we can only be united in tackling the social ills and the uneven distribution of wealth in ur country and nothing else. Sport offers us an escape from our troubles, it gives us hope that we indeed live in a great nation that can nurture the dreams of young men to world champions.

    I love rugby for the many hits I took, for the blood that teamates were willing to spill for me. I love the game because when all is said and done time and the effort of people like me who love it and wanna see it become a truelly national sport we see to it that it transforms.

  • Bilal

    Go Bokke:)
    Nice piece- I agree. I was in London, and saw so many South Africans here celebrating the victory- they need to know that South Africa is where our responsibilities lie as well…