Nicole Johnston
Nicole Johnston

Bread and circuses

Lo, Sunday morning dawned and strangely enough the world was unchanged! The fact that some beefy boys with cauliflower ears and bloodied eyes had spent 80 minutes throwing themselves on top of each other and shoving their heads up each other’s bums to win a shiny beaker the previous evening seems — oddly enough — to have changed bugger all.

Which is, to be honest, exactly what I’d expected. It was, after all, just a ball game. Although anyone who listened to radio or watched TV last week might be forgiven for thinking something far more important was going on, as we were all exhorted to whip ourselves into a frenzy on the grounds that this was undoubtedly A Good Thing that would “unite” the nation.

So the masses rushed off to buy Springbok shirts (peculiar how such avid fans didn’t already have one in their wardrobes, isn’t it? But then South African fans are notoriously fickle, pouring adulation on our national teams when they’re winning and reviling them when they’re not) and radio stations delivered breathless reports about fans slugging it out for the last Springbok-horned cap at Sportsman’s Warehouse, and in the midst of all the drama we forgot to ask exactly what they meant by “unity”.

Who are we united against? For what purpose? And how long will it last? The obvious answer is “against 15 English players for 80 minutes to prove we can catch and kick a ball better than they can”. But to listen to the politicians of every stripe (who trampled each other in their haste to wish the team luck and bask in the reflected limelight) you’d think the significance was something far deeper and of greater import as they all blethered on about national pride and unity. Now, if this nation, 13 years after the advent of democracy, isn’t proud or united, I’m not sure how winning a rugby game is going to change that.

As I listened in toe-curling embarrassment to a presenter on Classic FM warbling on in tones of awe and wonder about the fact that he’d actually seen some black folks wearing Springbok jerseys, and as callers to 94.7 Highveld Stereo declared in mawkish fashion that their blood was green, I wondered once again why we as a nation are so self-conscious about our identity. We always seem to be looking over our shoulders at the rest of the world going: “Look at us! Aren’t we special? Aren’t we all getting along well?” Now, I’m all for patriotism (despite it being the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson said), but I really can’t stomach all the jingoistic hyperbole that sidesteps the real issues.

So we have Patricia de Lille giving her staff the day off and demanding a public holiday in honour of this great event. We have everyone from Jacob Zuma to Jackie Selebi climbing on the bandwagon, hoping no doubt that this spectacle will divert our attention from what’s really going on. The cynicism of the sports administrators who lambasted Jake White for the lack of African players in the team, but who suddenly love him now he’s delivered victory, is breathtaking. Butana Komphela, the man who, if memory serves me, threatened to withdraw the passports of Proteas players (constitutional niceties notwithstanding) on grounds of insufficient transformation, was apparently in Paris to cheer on the mostly white team, apparently having forgotten his quibbles in the face of a triumph.

It all smacks a little too much of the “bread and circuses” approach so deftly used by the Romans to keep the mob distracted and pacified.

The truth is that South Africa is more divided now than it’s ever been since the advent of democracy. The gilt is off the gingerbread, as life in the rainbow nation has proved a little more complicated than anticipated. Perhaps all this rugby mania is an attempt to recreate those heady days of 1995 when the Madiba magic was at full beam and the country was gripped by heady enthusiasm and a sense of boundless possibility. (Thabo Mbeki’s stilted performance as father of the nation at the Stade de France illustrated the point perfectly. I’ve seen him looking more rapturous at Cosatu congresses …)

Since 1995 we’ve taken not a few wrong turns, and the Webb Ellis trophy being held aloft on the top of a double-decker bus at a ticker-tape parade won’t outweigh the things I’m NOT proud of: failure to deliver houses and clean water to the poorest of our people; a cack-handed approach to Aids that has made us an international joke; a lack of principle over human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Burma; creeping corruption and cronyism; the ever-widening gap between rich and poor; the appalling way we treat refugees and asylum seekers; the rising tide of joblessness and hopelessness; the escalation of violence against women and children; the rate at which crime is depriving us of our best and brightest talents …

Never mind the bloody ball games — I’d like to be proud of South Africa for some reasons that endure a bit longer than it takes for Saturday’s beer-and-braai hangover to wear off.