/ 14 November 2023

Springbok triumph is what the late Makhenkesi Stofile envisioned

Stadiums Of The 2010 Fifa World Cup
Many who are old enough would know that among the efforts towards building egalitarian and social cohesion was Makhenkesi Stofile’s singular boycott of the All Blacks and Springboks game because that team wasn’t reflective of South African demographic features. He succeeded. The game was not played. (Photo by /Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

In a compelling analysis of identity and nationhood in post-apartheid South Africa published shortly after the country’s hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, sociologist Neville Alexander posed the question whether the country’s recent political trajectories suggest that “a new historical community” is being fashioned — one in which the racial divisions of the apartheid past have been transcended, the liberation ideals of class and other equalities have been attained and a cohesive national South African identity prevails. 

The World Cup appeared to be the occasion for just that: media images beamed around the world showed South Africans from all racial, ethnic and class backgrounds collectively and proudly displaying the national flag, blowing the ubiquitous vuvuzela and supporting the national team, Bafana Bafana.

Media portrayals reinforced government rhetoric that underlined the cosmetic unity and modernity of post-apartheid South Africa. From the perspective of the government the World Cup represented the pinnacle of the achievements of the “Rainbow Nation” after 1994.

These assessments of the nation building momentum of the large sport tournament were countered by critical appraisals from several public figures and intellectuals who questioned the longevity or even authenticity of the feel-good sentiment evoked by the event. 

Alexander himself doubted the use of the event for a society still marked by racial conflict and deepening economic inequalities, which for him nullified any progress towards the “creative and constructive future” envisioned in the early post-apartheid years.

Others lamented spending on a grand spectacle that is not a metaphor of the historical triumph over adversity, of South Africa’s (or Africa’s) “renaissance” or of a positive “developmental legacy”. It is rather a costly and ultimately ephemeral exercise in myth-making. Others saw in the triumphalist popular celebrations and euphoria during the tournament as a false nationhood with little content or political mainstay.

Ultimately the socio-economic or socio-cultural legacies of the Fifa World Cup, the debates about what marks the tournament will leave on the political consciousness of South Africans, are significant because they reflect long-standing intellectual debates on how to grasp the dynamics between sport, politics and identity in the country and how to understand the role that sport has played in societal processes.

Now, many who are old enough would know that among the efforts towards building egalitarian and social cohesion was Makhenkesi Stofile’s singular boycott of the All Blacks and Springboks game because that team wasn’t reflective of South African demographic features. He succeeded. The game was not played. 

Stofile’s other significant contribution after 1994 was when, in his usual calm composure, painted for the portfolio committee on sports, in what I would call polite mechanical easing of Alexander’s concerns, a picture of the country’s balance of forces at the time. 

Reflecting on his annual report, he said: “The time for an assessment of the road travelled and also to provide direction for the way forward has arrived.” 

He noted that sport plays an integral role in the balance of forces in any country. He went further to say “despite sport competing for public resources with many other worthy causes”, his sports and recreation department “would not tire in its attempts to persuade the cabinet to maximise access to pursue rural sports development, build sports infrastructure, enhance drug free sports, promote school sports and excellence at all levels of participation”. 

He told MPs that his department was encouraged that the school mass participation programme had increased participation in sport as well as developed sport champions from grassroots level. At the same time, the department was mindful that many children were organically excluded from participating in the elite sport. For that reason, stakeholders were called to work together to intensify the development of sport and to deliver support to learners who displayed talent. This was a firm foundation for many black athletes. 

Articulating the position of the ANC on sports from the watershed 2007 Polokwane conference, he was concerned about the commercialisation of sports, and highlighted that it needed to be regulated. I cannot say he or the ANC foresaw that one day the Springboks would be hosted by a private citizen in a private property in Stellenbosch with national symbols that are, by extension, national assets. Bra Stof vociferously bemoaned the privatisation, monopolisation and commercialisation of sport as far back as 2008. 

He was futuristically doing this to protect those who are known to be pliable to capture, and also extrapolating Alexander’s discomfort about the state of “concrete social cohesion” in South Africa. Both Stofile and Alexander could smell the insatiable desire from some in the ANC who are prepared and over-committed in pleasing the historical oppressors at the expense of long-term interests of the “natives”. Stofile’s epistemological thread was that rugby belongs to the government, not private hands. 

In Stofile’s account, a white athlete was once funded seven times more than a black athlete, and you ask yourself what did the white protagonists of sport do to change that towards black athletes. The question I am raising here is: do we trust our historical oppressors about our total liberation through sport? 

When presenting his budget, he told parliament, quoting from Albert Luthuli, that “the Black Ox” can no longer eat in isolation from others. He was firmly saying that because of the demographic features of the country, it is not sickness to have as many Siya Kolisis as as possible inside the field of play, hence the vigorous advocation of both mass participation and a school sport programme at that time because these were complementary dimensions in giving birth to what we are celebrating today. 

The Springbok’s victory is traceable to his firm foundation, especially for the black children. 

Many without laying any foundation or doing anything tangible for the development of sport for black children would predictably and unduly claim certain credits today on the strength of other people’s long-term visions and hard work. This call goes beyond sports. Today’s efforts must address Alexander’s discomfort with the state of today’s fragile social cohesion and all its inherent problems. Eighty minutes’ patriotism in France on the field of play and anything that comes with it doesn’t necessarily grow food to kill poverty, doesn’t ease petrol hikes, doesn’t bring back the land and doesn’t substantially equalise society, otherwise we would have been glued by both 1995 Rugby World Cup and 2010 Fifa World Cup. 

Maybe it is time to find out from the current sports minister to share with the nation his barometer of how we have fared so far. Are we cohesively winning with the uniting force of sport as an instrument from 1995 to date? This is to check if we are managing the nation judiciously as the legendary African scholar, John Henrik Clarke, demands of all Africans. 

Mphumzi Mdekazi is an ANC member from the Boland region (AB Xuma branch) in the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.