The World Cup – South Africa struggles to modernize

I’m not a soccer fan. I’m not a sports fan in general, but I’d much rather watch hockey or basketball than soccer. When the Olympics came to Vancouver, I didn’t pay much attention except to the overall medal count. There is one thing about sport that I think is absolutely fantastic though – it’s the only thing the world seems to agree on. I watched the opening ceremonies with friends, and I was dumbstruck when during the entrance of the athletes, the Israeli team was immediately followed by the Iranian team. The leadership of the country of Iran thinks that Israel should be destroyed and swept into the sea. The leadership of Israel regularly kills Arabs, to the continued outrage of the Muslim world. And yet, the two teams were able to compete in friendly and spirited competition without letting politics and bullshit get in the way.

I feel the same way about the World Cup. Because soccer is such a low-tech sport (requiring only a kickable object and a designated goal area), it’s played all over the world. The United Nations is constantly fractures on important issues, but that doesn’t matter to FIFA – if you can play, you can compete. I think it’s a really powerful statement.

South Africa is the host of the 2010 World Cup. This country has probably the most fractured and storied history of racial violence, intolerance and systemic oppression out of any country in the world (including the USA). Even in 2010 there have been race-related murders and violence – South Africa has not grown out of its history. It’s a pretty powerful juxtaposition to have the entire world – people from all different cultures – come together in a place rife with violence and hatred, to put aside their differences in a way that isn’t possible under any other circumstance.

But you don’t have to take my word for it:

“It [the World Cup] will create an emotional bond among South Africans, but it will not end the divisions caused by more than three centuries of apartheid and colonialism,” [political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi] says.

The article provides a bit of colour and context to my description above. While the race divide in South Africa continues, there is more mobility as black South Africans begin to move into “white” sports like rugby. As I keep saying, the key to reducing racial division is to make race-identity secondary to more unifying identities, like secular national identity, or in this case team affiliation. It won’t simply happen by diffusion, or just existing side by side, there needs to be a force that unites formerly disparate groups into a larger sense of in-group. Sport has the power to do that.

Again, it’s not possible to talk about racial equality without disturbing the ground of women’s rights and gay rights, so this story about a lesbian soccer team made me smile ruefully:

To be poor, and black, and a lesbian in South Africa is to live in danger. “Corrective rapes”, beatings and murders are disturbingly common in conservative communities where homophobia remains deeply entrenched.

Don’t get it twisted, folks, South Africa is still a horrible place filled with violence, crippling poverty, ignorance and hate. Being on a lesbian football team, like the women in this article, is harnessing the same power of sport to unify people and take a stand against homophobia and violence. In a country where rape is seen as a way to “fix” gayness, it takes an enormous set of lady-balls to stand up and say “I’m here.” This is why we have a gay pride parade, incidentally, because we’re celebrating living in a country where people have the right to be openly gay and happy – it’s not about shoving it in people’s faces. And considering that there are still major problems even in so-called “modern” countries like Australia, we can’t ever relax our stance on ensuring equality for all people. I’m encouraged by things like the World Cup, and I hope you are too.

Of course, because I write these well before posting them, it’s easy to get scooped. If you liked this summary, you should read CLS’s much more informative article about this same issue.

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