“Once, I lived through a very strange time. Many of my fellow countrymen did too. Interestingly, it went on for a while, although not long enough. I remember how the time announced itself: a young white lady chatted me up. She thought I was a foreigner, West Indian she had guessed, on account of my height. And I thought she was a Brit, because it’s rare for local white girls to hit on black guys. In fact, it doesn’t occur. So what was happening? The World Cup was…
So many strange things happened around that time; South Africa became Afrikan. When Bafana Bafana failed to go on to the semi-finals stage of the tournament, many South Africans could be seen sporting the flags and colours of other Afrikan countries that remained in the running. Overnight it seemed everyone I knew had become a Black Stars (Ghanaian) fan.
And people became instant-entrepreneurs. I will never forget the sight of a young man, a Sowetan, calling out for clients in Spanish on the day of the World Cup final. He had become a face-painter during the tournament and had picked up the language through his interactions with clients. Fascinated, I watched him cater to Spanish fans and actually converse with them in their language. It struck me that while we often speak of the skills South Africans are said to lack, the ability for language is one that is neither recognised nor exploited. Though he was selling face-painting, I think his real entrepreneurial flair was speaking to people’s souls.
And crime virtually stopped. It was like criminals had heeded the appeal to make the World Cup successful. Or perhaps they too wanted to watch the matches in peace. Or perhaps it was simply that their antics didn’t make the news.
And newspeople took a chill pill. As did a whole litany of usually controversial characters, from politicians, to activists, to tabloid-fêted celebrities. I remember news of striking workers being muted or maybe we just didn’t care all that much. For many months after, the jokes abounded about who didn’t do what during the World Cup.
It really was a holiday for us. Importantly, it was a holiday from us.
I took a holiday from some of my baggage when one day in the stands of the newly renovated Soccer City stadium, I began to freeze my behind off and the chap seated next to me offered me his jersey. I couldn’t believe it. He was a white Capetonian. Moments later my brothers and I were made aware that we were in the wrong seats, so we moved to our correct seats in the next section. I stood up and began peeling off the jersey. The man stopped me and told me he would get the jersey from me after the game. Later, when it was finally time to go home, I found the man and his family milling patiently about the stands where I had left them. He had no doubt that I would bring his jersey back. I found this curious, having assumed that he would view me with suspicion as my younger years taught me is my lot in life.
This strange time ended, of course, and things went back to normal. Angst returned with a flourish, exploding onto the scene like a long-anticipated cabaret act. Whereas we had stood united, as South Africans, we now began to fall apart. Or rather, return to our respective separate lives.
One of the reasons a white Capetonian man doesn’t offer me his jersey any more is because there is no opportunity for him to do so.
Nation-building is not something that can or will happen by itself. Indeed, any agenda of unifying South Africans must match the methodical and deliberate enforcement of segregation in terms of the thought and attention to detail given it by its apartheid engineers. South Africa’s residents must be consistently and constantly flung together; forced together not only to celebrate the outcome of a Rugby World Cup but also to build together…”