Whatever the outcome in Ukraine, a thread has been tugged, unravelling sport’s entanglement with geopolitics. (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
More than two years ago I bought three tickets to watch Swan Lake with my daughters. The performance was postponed in 2021 because of Covid-19, and again last year when the pandemic restrictions limited attendance to events to 50% occupancy.
In addition, my youngest daughter, Mbali, had leukaemia and had just received a bone marrow transplant, which meant she had to stay in isolation until her body accepted the foreign entity. The postponement to 2023 was welcome because it meant all three of us would be able to see Swan Lake as a family.
Little did we know what the universe had planned; when we could go to the ballet Mbali was no longer with us. Nandi, Mbali’s older sister, invited her friend to come with us instead. So, this past Saturday we went to Montecasino’s Teatro to watch the long-awaited ballet, watching it not only for ourselves but for our dearly departed Mbali, who had been so eagerly awaiting Swan Lake.
The theatre was packed, an excited buzz filling the room. From the first strings of the music the audience was spellbound. It had been worth the wait. Watching the sublime movement of the dancers twisting and turning their bodies into positions that no human should be able to while portraying the emotions of the ballet through every part of their bodies, accompanied by the evocative music of Tchaikovsky’s score, we were all captivated. Each movement of the body, hands, legs, feet and head showed the anguish, confusion, joy and ecstasy that the dancers were conveying.
During the intermission, when I checked when the ballet had initially been supposed to come to our shores, an article popped up about a demonstration in Cape Town of pro-Ukraine protestors who were demonstrating against the showing of Swan Lake at the Artscape theatre. This made me wonder whether it is the right thing for sports people and artists to be punished for the decisions of their governments. After the war in Ukraine started in 2022, the All-England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing in the 2022 Wimbledon tournament. The men’s and women’s ATP Tour condemned the AELTC’s decision, calling it discriminatory and stripping the Grand Slam of its ranking points.
The AELTC maintained that it didn’t want to risk a Russian or Belarusian player winning, thereby giving the Russian regime ammunition for its propaganda. The ban on Russian and Belarusian players was lifted this year, but if they wanted to participate in the tournament they had to compete as neutrals. Numerous British theatres also cancelled ballet performances by Russian dance companies.
In my lifetime there have been wars in: Iraq, 1990-1991; Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992-1995; Kosovo, 1998-1999; Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1998-2003; Afghanistan: 2001-2021; Iraq, 2003-2011; Darfur, 2003 to the present; Syria, 2010 to the present; Libya, 2011 to the present; Yemen, 2015 to the present; Russia in Ukraine, 2022 to the present.
In all these wars leading Western powers, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, have either been involved by having boots on the ground or by proxy. In some instances, Russia has also been a party to these wars. The Nato grouping led by the US has, of late, been bypassing the United Nations and has become the de facto group that decides whether war will be waged or not, as well as the terms of those wars.
Of all these wars, including the US-led Iraq war (2003-2011) that saw more than a million people killed and left the country devastated, neither the International Criminal Court nor any other body has taken action against the people who waged those wars. Nor have there been any consequences for those countries, populations or sanctions against their countries, companies or individuals.
It seems only countries that do not belong in the Nato club get this treatment. The ongoing Russian war in Ukraine has seen the most unprecedented pressure on countries around the world to divorce themselves from Moscow, including the country’s athletes and artists being ostracised.
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Sanctions against the apartheid regime, including those that prevented South Africa’s sports men and women from competing internationally, helped put pressure on it to abandon its crime against the majority of South Africa’s people who were being treated as sub-human.
Sitting in the Teatro watching the transcendent performance of Swan Lake brought to mind just how important culture is for connecting people at a human level, a level that knows no borders or petty distractions of ethnicity and so on. The sublime is, by definition, transcendent.
Sport can also take us out of the ordinary and into the kind of shared moments where time stands still, we gasp with admiration and emotions well up. Today, many South Africans look back with nostalgia at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 football Africa Cup of Nations and the 2010 Fifa World Cup as moments when it felt like our country was moving forward, a time when there was a shared sense of optimism in the air.
Should we be boycotting or calling for the boycott of individual athletes and ballet companies because of the actions of their governments? Cutting ourselves off from each other, and from the kinds of inspiration that so easily cross all kinds of borders, is not a decision to be taken lightly. It’s a kind of amputation of our own humanity as well as a punishment meted out against others.
But humanity is as terrible as it is beautiful, and few South Africans would not agree that the sporting and cultural boycotts were not a price worth paying to mark a global refusal of a brutal system of oppression. But if we are willing to pay this price, it must follow from principle, universal principle, rather than the grubby machinations of self-interested geopolitics.
If we are against war then we should be against all wars and not just some wars. All countries that invade others should be sanctioned regardless of whether they are part of the West. Principle should outweigh global power relations. If it does not then it is not really principle, and is just another weapon in a geopolitical conflict, albeit one spun as principle.
In South Africa there is a significant — although not uniform — extent to which views on geopolitics fracture along lines of race. Most black people do not feel an instinctive identification with the West, while many white people do. A large portion of the audience for Swan Lake at the Teatro were probably part of the vocal section of our society that has wanted Pretoria to join the West’s proxy war in Ukraine. Yet they were able to look beyond politics to appreciate the art. We all, collectively, experienced something beautiful and profound.
If boycotts and sanctions were used against all forms of oppression, against all wars without regard for location and power of the perpetrators, then they would be a price worth paying for principle. But they are not. It is unimaginable that British, French and American artists and sportspeople would be sanctioned because their states have waged illegal and immoral wars, wars that have taken far more lives than the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.
In the absence of any kind of principle, and in the face of gross hypocrisy, it makes more sense for us to hold on to beauty and the transcendent dimensions of our shared humanity. My daughter, her friend and I were transported by the ballet at the Teatro. We were enriched and dignified by it, and Mbali would have loved it with all her little heart.
There is so much ugliness in the world that when the choice is between hypocrisy and beauty we must choose beauty.
There is so much ugliness in the world, people should not be begrudged a few hours of beauty and a cultural escape. There are better ways of showing outrage and solidarity than boycotting a ballet company.
Nontobeko Hlela is an independent commentator on international relations and geopolitical issues