“South Africa has some phenomenal PR,” I thought, walking out of a lecture given by South African Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Yvonne Mokgoro a few years ago on the comparative civil rights protections granted under the South African and American constitutions. According to Mokgoro, the United States came in a far distant second. She wasn’t wrong; the South African constitution is among the most liberally worded and progressive of its kind. But consider the current state of South Africa: Crime and HIV prevalence are astronomically high. Unemployment is around 40%. Income disparity has continued to increase post-apartheid. The President Jacob Zuma – well, the less said about him the better. All the “Rainbow Nation” rhetoric on racism apparently remains just that. So for a country so steeped in problems, I had to admire South Africa’s moxie in positioning itself as a beacon of hope, not only for its continent, but for the rest of the world.
More recently, I was again struck by South Africa’s public relations when I was tied down and forced to watch the film “Invictus” (2009) against my will. Based on a book by Independent reporter John Carlin, “Invictus” tells the story of the South African rugby team, the Springboks, and their victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Despite the widespread call post-apartheid to put an end to the historically racially divisive team, Mandela avidly supported the Springboks, anticipating that their victory would bring the country together.
Not only was “Invictus” mind-numbingly dull, it suffered from the fatal flaw of most movies of its genre: it lacked both a prequel and a sequel. A prequel would have shown the uglier facts about why Black South Africans so detested the Springboks. A sequel, in turn, would have shown how shortly after the World Cup the Springboks returned to their old ways, and the numerous racial allegations and incidents that had the country once again calling to disband the team. As Louis Proyect writes about such films: “in each case, the audience is hoodwinked into believing that the movie is about the real world rather than some liberal fantasy.”
Such criticisms against films like “Invictus” are nothing new; their very premise – that racial discord can be best ameliorated not through structural change but via a sporting victory – itself cannot be said with a straight face.
Or so I thought.
As it turns out, “Invictus” did nail one thing with spot-on accuracy: the real-world discourse that sports are an effective means of mitigating racial tensions. In the lead-up to the current FIFA World Cup, all sorts of people in high places were throwing such claims around:
“Let’s kick discrimination off the field. Let’s tackle exclusion. Let’s put racism offside,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated in an op-ed published in South Africa’s Business Day.
While economic rise can certainly help cure any number of social issues, from what I gather, this optimism is not just about the cash. Hosting the World Cup will lead to an increase in tourism revenue, but South Africa already is a leader in that regard, ranking second among African countries after Egypt in world tourism rankings. So it’s been predicted that any South Africa (as opposed to FIFA) cash gains from the World Cup are unlikely to be offset by the tremendous cost of hosting the event. Writes Chris Bolsmann at the Harvard Business Review:
Relying on tax subsidies, the South African organizers have built five world-class stadiums, renovated two existing football stadiums and a further three rugby stadiums, and made additional significant infrastructure changes — all at a cost in excess of 30 billion South African rand, double what was predicted in 2006. This is in a country where poverty is extreme…
Not only has this World Cup been predicted to lower racism in South Africa, but in international soccer overall, which is likewise not a particularly nice place for athletes of color, what with the European fans who make monkey noises when Black players touch the ball or throw bananas onto the pitch. The Guardian reported that Cameroon’s captain, Samuel Eto’o, believes that the World Cup in South Africa can “help to diminish the racism that has blighted European football.”
This brings to mind a couple of questions, namely: Are they kidding? And, are they serious?
Why is it that sports continue to be viewed as a potent means to alleviating racism? Sure, there are several obvious theoretical arguments that can be made to that effect. Though each team plays for its own country, international soccer does have a legacy of dividing people in ways completely unrelated to nationalism and ethnicity. For example, there is a recurring history of catastrophically violent riots between militant fans of Brazilian and Argentinian soccer – in Bangladesh.
Nor am I overlooking the potential benefits of the fact that many athletes are themselves of color. Soccer guru Nick Hornby wrote that men do not wish themselves on the pitch, but rather see their team as their chosen representatives. So perhaps having people of color present on the pitch reaps benefits akin to their presence in, say, politics or the judiciary. Further, male admiration for another’s athletic prowess has a distinct ability to transform into a more generalized admiration and source of respect, just as the only Black member of a historically segregated club in Kentucky is retired NBA player Sam Bowie – “Sam’s just like everybody else,” claimed another White member.
One can go on expounding such theories, but the evidence remains largely to the contrary because, above all, sports are a fantasy. They take place in an egalitarian construct with rigid rules designed to maximize fair play, so that success will be based solely on skill – in other words, a construct that bears no relation to the real world. While athletic competitions provide countries and teams with an opportunity to present their best selves on the world’s stage, it is only for a discrete, deliberate moment, in a vacuum. Moments like the Springbok’s victory at the Rugby World Cup thus cannot be relied on to have widespread social reverberations and to catalyze change. At their root, they are just a show.
In that way, sports are not unlike PR – and perhaps that is why South Africa is drawn towards them. The “Rainbow Nation” has no doubt proven its ability to show its best self to the rest of the world. But one cannot help but wonder if it has been doing so to its own detriment.