Superfans: Masilo Machaka with Chiefs fans during the match between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs in 2009. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
International football has been a sobering experience for South Africans. Fans have flocked back to stadiums, first in the European Championships and then in most of the continent’s major leagues.
Even on the TV screen their excitement is palpable; an explosive release of almost two years of collective Covid frustration and fatigue. Their passion makes a superior broadcast product too — the bogus crowd noise has now been banished.
But as much as the developments are welcomed by all sports lovers, it’s hard for South Africans not to feel a tinge of jealousy.
“When you watch England, maybe Chelsea, play against Liverpool, there’s a lot of fans there,” Kaizer Chiefs superfan Masilo Machaka says. “There’s a good atmosphere, we say ‘wow, eish, we’d like to be there’. How can we be there?”
In the years before the Covid-19 pandemic Machaka was seen at every major event or national team outing across multiple sporting codes, inevitably donning a makarapa and his raised fists bouncing. Now, hearing Anfield boom out You’ll Never Walk Alone in his living room posed a question shared by many other South Africans.
When will Soccer City have its own moment of catharsis? No one can answer that with any certainty.
With vaccination rates still low — only 11.5% of the population was fully vaccinated at the time of writing — there are no prospects of welcoming back large crowds in the near future. Not when many believe the slightest provocation could usher in a fourth wave by December.
Yet a new narrative has developed suggesting that it might be in the country’s best interests to open up its stands once again — provided it does so only for the vaccinated.
It’s a suggestion apparently considered by Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla, who said last week that the government was discussing “soft incentives” to stimulate the uptake of Covid-19 vaccinations.
“We could start opening up various activities, sports, cultural, and more businesses and other get-togethers,” he said. “To say, if you are vaccinated, so many people can go to the soccer stadium to watch a match. If you are vaccinated and you can prove that, so many people can go to Newtown to enjoy some music.”
The logic is simple: there are a number of fence-sitters, who are sufficiently scared of the jab that they would rather put it off. These people could possibly be coaxed with “goodies”, as Phaahla put it. He added that a proposal could be put to the government outlining how this might work.
Asked this week whether there was any movement on the proposal, Phaahla’s office said the minister still had to first have a discussion with the cabinet before it could publish a concrete scheme.
When the communications department announced that a special event would be held at Soccer City on Wednesday morning, it was expected that more would be heard about such plans — especially considering that the event was cohosted by Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa and Deputy President David Mabuza in his capacity as the chairperson of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Covid-19 Vaccines.
‘Return to play’
Two hours later (three if you include the late start) and there was little to be gleaned about the government’s definitive plans on the matter. What was offered instead was the launch of the “Return to play —it’s in your hands” campaign. This is essentially a call to the nation’s sportspeople to encourage everyone to get vaccinated. Or, as Mthethwa put it, “a passing of the baton”.
The morning was a typical South African extravaganza of protocols observed and platitudes. One by one some of the country’s prominent sportspeople and artists trotted to the stage to deliver the same message: vaccines save life. They included Proteas netball captain Bongi Msomi, Miss SA Shudufhadzo Musida and footballer Siphiwe Tshabalala — who scored what is perhaps Bafana Bafana’s most famous goal at the same grounds to open the 2010 World Cup.
The top brass of the top sporting administrations were also on hand. They included South African Rugby Union (Saru) boss Mark Alexander, whose presentation was blighted by technical issues. After asking for a video to be played by “our captain”, former Bok leader John Smit popped up on screen. “Sorry, can you play the current captain now,” an annoyed Alexander said. When his request remained unanswered he produced his cellphone and held Siya Kolisi’s message up to the microphone.
“I think the stadium’s system got Covid,” came the macabre joke after it finished.
Incidentally, Alexander had two weeks previously said there is a group in the sporting fraternity pushing for stadiums to reopen solely to the vaccinated. He, however, didn’t want to say much more and didn’t elaborate on this occasion.
The most detailed plan of the day belonged to the head of the South African Football (Safa), Danny Jordaan.
“It’s very clear. If you are unvaccinated, you must go to the hospital, you can’t come to the stadium,” he said. “We want you to come to the stadium, we don’t want you to go the hospital.”
He announced that, pending an agreement with the sports minister, Safa will give away 50% of the tickets to Bafana’s next game against Ethiopia. Given that game is a month away, it would seem he assumes stadiums will open up in some capacity between now and then.
To complete proceedings before the keynote address by the deputy president, Mthethwa — who still struggles to shake his moniker of “minister of condolences” — got his second Covid vaccination onstage after Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed their new song:
Save South Africa.
It’s not about you, it’s not about me
It’s about all of us.
It fell to Mabuza to say when South Africans can return en masse to stadiums. The answer is, simply, when we are ready to — which coincides with the government’s previously stated goal of achieving a rate of 70% of the population vaccinated by the end of the year.
“A vaccinated nation is what it will take to once again open the stadium for the popular Soweto Derby,” he said. “A vaccinated nation is what it will take to open the Cape Town Jazz Festival, the Macufe and other prominent music events in our calendar. And, indeed, a vaccinated nation is what it will take to open the Durban July and other similar events.”
But it remains unclear how the government thinks it will wield sport incentives beyond messages of encouragement.
In his discussions last week, Phaahla referenced recent financial incentives offered in the United States. Following the directive of President Joe Biden, some states offer up to $100 to its citizens who are yet to be vaccinated.
Countless other examples of incentives can be found, from cow raffles in the Philippines to free football tickets and Uber has offered 10-million rides to people who can’t get to vaccination sites.
South Africa, Phaahla acknowledged, does not have the means to offer raw cash and thus has to be more creative in how it encourages people to have the jab.
With the devastating effect of the hard lockdowns still reverberating across the sport, arts and culture orbit, there is no shortage of lobbyists raising their hands to help prod the process along.
One such person is the Western Cape’s MEC for cultural affairs and sport, Anroux Marais. She said her department had written to President Cyril Ramaphosa this week requesting permission to reopen events in the province.
“Especially now. Our people are feeling depressed,” she said. “What this pandemic taught me is that sometimes you think arts and culture and sport is just by-the-way. Now it seems that [it is] very essential. It’s come more and more to the foreground. We need it back.”
Marais has already overseen an incentive initiative. As part of Heritage Month, the province is offering free entry to all its museums to those who can present a vaccine card. The hope is to soon extend similar initiatives to stadiums. But she is uncertain whether that would involve preventing the unjabbed from entering.
“I wish we could, but [we] cannot say ‘you have to be vaccinated’ because we don’t have the legal mandate for that,” she said.
It is this sticky question that much of South African sport is skirting around: where do we draw the line between incentive and punishment? The country’s liberal sentiments will never see anyone legally compelled to take the vaccine but some might argue that restricted events is penalisation under a different name.
This argument has raged around the world and, now that Discovery Ltd has designating itself the canary in the coal mine, it is being debated in South Africa. The company has announced that it will introduce a mandatory vaccination policy for all its employees in 2022, and will later extend the rule to all of its properties.
How the debate plays out in the coming days and weeks may inform how the sporting sector formulates its own decisions.
‘Our second home’
Including the arts, there are many who are desperate for full audiences to return.
Although exact losses are impossible to know, a few snippets are enough to bring home the point.
One study out of the University of Kinshasa in February estimated that the loss in the creative and cultural industries in six countries — including South Africa — stood at $1.5-billion (R21.23-billion) at the time.
The rugby pitch saw a 45% revenue decline in 2020 for Saru — generating only R710-million compared to R1.29-billion the previous year. The organisation said it was “a triumph to still be in business” and only remained so thanks to strict austerity measures.
PSL numbers are not publicly released but, after an inquiry submission, live attendance and suppliers made up at least 6% of its own revenue in 2017. All things being equal it means the league lost at least R50-million last year. And that’s before we even consider the livelihoods of others such as the vendors who sell wors rolls outside of Loftus Versfeld.
A return to stadiums would evidently share the dual purpose of reigniting the sector’s economy and, potentially, invigorating the vaccine drive.
Choosing between the jab and a return to their favourite grounds is a non-issue for many supporters, according to well-known Orlando Pirates fan Dejan Miladinovic.
“They trust the vaccines because they know that if they don’t get the vaccine they’re not going to be able to go to the stadium. That’s what I’m thinking myself and that is what’s going to happen,” says Miladinovic. “When the fans see the supporters which they know for many years — like me for example — most probably they’re going to do it.
“Maybe outside the stadiums they’re going to put the tents so that people will be vaccinated and be able to go into the stadium.”
Such an idea may well be one the country’s sporting authorities come to consider. For now, however, their actions appear tied to encouragement in the forms of drives and campaigns. With millions of South Africans emotionally invested in the nation’s games, lateral thinking in the sector could well assist the vaccine boon desperately needed.
For Machaka, Miladinovic’s friend and Soweto Derby rival, it is all too obvious that any soft-baked vaccine hesitancy will fade away in the face of a return to stadiums.
“Who would not want to get back to the stadium?” he asks.
“It will encourage people to get vaccinated and do what we love week-in, week-out. Remember, the stadium is our second home. You have the home where you put your head and sleep and dream. But the stadium is our second home. When we are there we feel happy, we forget about stress, we forget about being dumped by your girlfriend or wife or your husband. There’s a family away from family, which is the supporters.”