Last Saturday the African Cup of Nations kicked off with a match between the host country of South Africa and a visiting team Cape Verde. The African Cup of Nations is a continent wide soccer tournament that takes place between all qualifying African Nations. The last time South Africa hosted this tournament was in 1996 when the South African national team , known as Bafana Bafana, won the Cup of Nations. This win took place the year after the South African Rugby team, called The Springboks, won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 (a victory that is the basis of the movie Invictus). Both of these sport victories came to represent unity and national pride for the newly Democratic, yet still deeply divided by its Apartheid past, South Africa.
Now in 2013 for people of Cape Town the African Cup of Nations and Bafana Bafana is a divisive issue. Intriguingly Cape Town’s soccer stadium, one of ten used in the 2010 World Cup, is supposedly not being utilized for the Cup of Nations because ticket revenues would not cover the expenses of hosting the event.
When watching the game with residence of my neighborhood, an area known in Cape Town as a “colored township”, there was little belief for the home team, that in the eyes of many South Africans has been struggling to perform, having lost two friendly games leading up to the Cup of Nations. For members of my community the topic of Bafana Bafana and why there are no games being hosted in Cape Town revolves around race.
During the game I brought up how I thought it was strange that Cape Town’s Stadium is not being used for any games. At this a few of the men showed open outrage at the topic. Saying “Don’t talk about that man, oh man, don’t talk about that”. Then after taking a second to collect their thoughts one of them said to me “You see, we don’t want them here, if they come here we kick their ass”. He went on to explain that he did not like Bafana Bafana or the South African domestic teams because, in his opinion, they played poorly and this he contributed to the fact that Bafana Bafana and domestic soccer is composed of majority black athletes. He said “You see the blacks don’t let the coloured people or white people play in their leagues”. He then added that “the blacks” were good at playing soccer but they did not know how to manage a team and that they excluded good players based on race.
Another man added that he loves to watch cricket and rugby, but when it comes to soccer we would rather watch the English Premier League then his local domestic team. To prove his point he took out his smart-phone and, as he tapped on the touch screen, explained that Manchester United came to Cape Town to play Ajax (Cape Town’s domestic team) a few years back and he and his son went to the game dressed in the colors of Manchester United and not his own cities team. He showed me the photo of his son wearing bright red and gold hat and scarf adorned with a lion crest, and in the back ground you could see the stadium’s seating was a patch work of mostly red and gold. He said to me, South African soccer is so bad, here in Cape Town we would rather support an English team, then our own local team.
Then another man began to tell me a story about the 1996 Bafana Bafana team that won the African Cup of Nations. A story that I have heard multiple times since being in Cape Town. He explained that the 1996 South African team won because it was only ten percent black, and seventy percent white and coloured. In past versions of the story I have also heard that the team’s positions on the field were divided by race. It was explained that the white people played defense because they are strong, have good team work, and are organized. The coloured people played the mid field because they are good at passing and all around the strongest players. And the blacks played the forwards because they were the most flashy, independent, and best at striking the ball. It was even added that the 1996 team won because they were split up according to their race.
These racial based explanations for the performance of the national soccer seem to parallel racial divisions that can be seen in all parts of South African society and politics. As I have discussed before the Aparthied government divided its people into three racial groups: white, coloured, and black. People were prevented by law to live and associate with people from different racial groups. From the examples above it is evident that people in South Africa still divide people based on these racial groups, and attribute stereotypical characteristics based on race.
Further the explanations above reflect regional differences within the country. Cape Town and the Western Province are different from the other provinces in South Africa in that it is governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA) and not South Africa’s ruling party the African National Conferences (ANC). Many people in Cape Town, especially those in the coloured community, do not like the politics of the ANC and view the party as corrupt and leading South Africa to economic ruin. When people in Cape Town speak of South Africa they do so in such a way that draws a clear line between them and the rest of the country. As is evident in the statement above where the man stated that “we don’t want them [Bafana Bafana] here [Cape Town]”.
Also adding to racial divisions, many people in the coloured community feel their oppression under the Apartheid government has been forgotten by what they view as the black dominated ANC. They feel that Africa’s ruling party only supplies fund to increase the infrastructure of black communities and forget about the hardships that face the coloured community.
So it is clear from soccer to politics that racial divisions from the Apartheid past still dominate the perspective of many people in Cape Town. Though these divisions are deep and will continue to divide South Africa for years to come there is still signs of national unity regarding Bafana Bafana. Regardless of race and associated stereotypes it is clear that people in the community in which I live clearly want their nations team to win the African Cup of Nations and still show much pride and support for their team. For example it is common to see people of all racial groups wearing a Bafana Bafana jersey on game days, and everyone I know either watches the games or monitor the scores by checking in with friends or update via the internet. So though there are still deep racial divisions, national sports are still a point for a country that has faced deep social divides in the past to unite behind and to share common ground.
Update: Bafana Bafana made it to the quarter finals and will be facing Mali on Saturday.
Bafana Bafana put up a great fight during the game but lost to Mali 3-1 during a shoot-out after an extra time 1-1 draw.