The world in one country

I haven’t been back to South Africa – where I was born and lived for 22 years – for 10 years but from here, from Greece, I can feel the enthusiasm, the pride and the anxiety of a nation that wants to be seen as a worthy host of the World Cup. I cannot imagine another country that is so keen to show off its capabilities, which faces so many challenges and which has the potential to overcome them – not only in this competition but as a model for our increasingly mixed-up world. A little beyond the soccer and the screeching vuvuzelas, the past and the future overlap in a world of contradictions and opposites and of options for successful synthesis. The challenge that South Africa faces – as do so many other countries and regions – is how to combine economic progress with social justice, to distribute wealth fairly, to share power without collapsing into violence and chaos or retreating into authoritarianism. Twenty years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of racial segregation, South Africa is hosting the greatest sports event ever held on its continent. It is in a unique position to make a great success of this: Not only is it Africa’s biggest economy and an emerging power on the international scene but its people also have a remarkably important relationship with sports. South Africans are sports-mad and genuinely hospitable, without exception, whether black or white, rich or poor. In the apartheid years, whites played mostly rugby and cricket and the blacks soccer – each race in its own stadiums, in its separate areas. Apartheid has been scrapped but its marks remain in the chasm between rich and poor – and on the playing fields. The national soccer team, which inaugurated the World Cup on Friday with an electrifying goal, did not field one white player, while the national rugby and cricket teams are dominated by whites. It’s not that there hasn’t been a great effort to break down the barrier – and there are exceptional athletes of all races in each of these sports – but children follow the footsteps of their heroes in their choice of sport. And so the separation continues – on the playing field. In the stands it is another story: There, blacks and whites together cheer a single team, forging a single national identity. Sports always played a central role in South Africa’s politics. The apartheid regime caused the country’s expulsion from all international sports when, in 1968, it refused to admit a «colored» cricketer, Basil d’Oliveira, as a member of England’s visiting national team. A superb batsman, d’Oliveira had been born in South Africa but was a naturalized Englishman and his selection was seen as a challenge to the foundations of white supremacy. The sanctions of the 1970s and 80s deprived both blacks and whites of international experience. They played only within their own country, and, with few exceptions, in their own separate areas. This isolation created a great thirst for a return to the international community and for recognition of the country’s talents. Segregation and isolation ended in the most spectacular way in 1995, one year after Mandela’s election as president, at the first major sports event to be held in the newly liberated country: the world rugby championship. Wearing the national rugby team’s jersey – a symbol of Afrikanerdom hated by the black majority – Mandela walked onto the pitch to award the trophy to the captain of his country’s victorious team. With this simple, splendid action, Mandela told his black and white compatriots that he was the president of all. The stadium in Johannesburg, packed with Afrikaners whose leaders had jailed Mandela for 27 years, began to chant, «Nelson, Nelson, Nelson.» (The story is portrayed movingly in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film, «Invictus»). Mandela put his personal reputation on the line at a time when the country’s wounds were still raw and, in doing so, established the foundations of the future, of national unity. Each race, each tribe, in South Africa (with its 11 official languages) has its own version of events, its own bitterness and ambitions. Love of sports, though, unites; it molds a nation that supports one team, a nation that is so obviously proud of the face that it shows the world. A face that is complicated, hopeful, strident, generous and of many, many colors.