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.