On the Playing Fields of Politics:
Place of the Year 2009
Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant
Iris Berger is professor of Professor of History, Africana Studies, and Women’s Studies at the University at Albany and author of Threads of Solidarity: Women in South African Industry, 1900-1980 and South Africa in World History. For many years, she was involved in anti-apartheid organizations in Upstate New York. In the following piece she recalls how sports have played a vital role in South African politics. You can check out other “Place of the Year” contributions here.
I had never paid much attention to rugby. My only previous encounter with the game occurred on September 22, 1981 when I joined 1,000 other demonstrators who marched in a downpour from the New York State Capitol to a stadium on the edge of Albany to protest the match between the Springboks and the local rugby team. As Pete Seeger led us in singing “Wimoweh,” the virtually all-white South African team trounced the Eastern All-Stars 41-0. Threats of violence had prompted Governor Hugh Carey to cancel the game and an explosion at the headquarters of the Eastern Rugby Union seemed to confirm his fears. But the United States Court of Appeals ruled that cancellation would be an abridgement of freedom of speech.
This brief immersion in the politics of professional sports left me unprepared for the events of June 24, 1995 when I arrived in Cape Town in mid-morning, groggy from the twenty-four journey from Albany. A year earlier apartheid had ended and Nelson Mandela was elected President in the country’s first democratic elections. Determined to fight my jet lag and adjust to local time, I walked from my quaint guest house at the foot of Table Mountain to the bustling Main Road and caught a cramped mini-van taxi to the city center. Getting off at the train station, I was mystified by the quiet. Only the Zimbabwean women street vendors, displaying soapstone sculptures and crocheted sweaters, broke the silence. When I ventured a few blocks to a small café for lunch, I found the crowds I’d been expecting – but they were all huddled in front of the television set intent on following a rugby game between South Africa and New Zealand, cheering boisterously when the local team scored. The scene was repeated at my next stop – the Bo Kaap Museum in the former Muslim quarter of the city, now furnished as a nineteenth-century house.
Only when I returned to the guest house in mid-afternoon and found everyone there glued to the screen did I finally realize that I had unwittingly stumbled onto an historic event. Just as the anti-apartheid movement had enlisted the national passion for rugby in the interests of liberation, Mandela saw that hosting the World Cup might offer an opportunity for a symbolic reconciliation between the black-dominated government and the white minority, now ousted from its exclusive hold on power. This time I joined the group to witness – and celebrate – the victory of a new South Africa and see to Mandela walk onto the field in his team’s bright green cap and uniform, his shirt bearing the number of the team’s white captain.
Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s new film dramatizing these events will no doubt resurrect memories of the country’s ecstatic response in 1995, when South Africans were still celebrating the country’s transformation from a bastion of racism to a “rainbow nation.” But fifteen years later, life sometimes seems more complicated, even on the playing fields. The recent furor over the gender identity of the South African running champion Caster Semenya, which provoked heated controversy both internationally and in South Africa, mirrors the issues now confronting a nation struggling to overcome a legacy of poverty and unemployment, and to face the more recent challenge of HIV/AIDs. It’s an open question of whether, in this more difficult context, the current President Jacob Zuma will be able to use the World Cup soccer championship in 2010 to reinvent the country’s image and to renew people’s commitment to a shared national identity.