2010 FIFA World Cup: Bafana Bafana's Political Legacy

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2010 FIFA World Cup: Bafana Bafana's Political Legacy
Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

Football is played and watched by more South Africans than any other sport. Being chosen as the first African nation to stage the World Cup is a reward for both this passion and for the wider changes that have taken place in the last 20 years since the demise of apartheid.

Playing with a ball is one of the oldest pastimes and would form part of what historian Johan Huizinga called "play," an activity of leisure free from restraint and formality. What we might recognise as football was first acknowledged in the South African history books on August 23 1862 by soldiers and employees of the colonial administration.

Like all sports, football hadn't been codified and was played in a myriad of formats that would have been brought to the colonies by those who learned it first in the public schools. The first match above, for example, was played between two teams of 14.

Visits from the leading British amateur side the Corinthians in 1903 and 1907, alongside tours to Argentina and Brazil in 1906, suggest that football was popular among whites and played to a high standard.

Indeed, by the end of the 19th century football was played by all population groups, though this meant that it didn't fit the exclusivity that was a key component of colonialism and whites turned to rugby for their winter leisure, denigrating football as plebeian.

Football then became predominately the sport of the African masses and became ever more popular in the 20th century.

Football clubs expressed street, neighbourhood, workplace and township identities. Teams such as the Orlando Pirates, founded in 1937, became a rallying point of social solidarity and self-worth and football associations highlighted a sense of empowerment and the ability to self-organise.

The sport's administration drew the attention of the African political class. Charles and William Dube, brothers of John Dube, the first ANC president, were early leaders of football in Durban.

Another future leader of the ANC Albert Luthuli was vice-president of the Durban Football Association and other members were prominent on committees.

Migrants flooded into the towns during the second world war to take advantage of the factories that were catering for the demands of warfare. Industry required labour and the promise of better wages attracted poor black migrants to urban areas. Housing couldn't cope and shanty towns and squatter camps accommodated the overspill.

Organised township football took off, but overcrowding meant that there were few pitches to play on. Mixed competition was prohibited under strict apartheid laws.

Being mainly a working class and African sport meant that football was not considered a threat to white interests. Its popularity among the masses, on the other hand, meant that it would become a useful political weapon against the apartheid regime.

Matches allowed patrons and officials to present themselves in large public forums as leading men of the community.

Organised as the South African Soccer Federation, opponents to apartheid mounted a campaign to isolate the South African FA. After table tennis, football was the next South African sport to be excluded when Fifa expelled it in 1964.

The white South African FA reacted to their expulsion through a campaign of intimidation. Banning orders were placed on the leaders of the black organisations and racial federations were created while multi-racial sides were excluded from municipal pitches.

Yet the repressive measures of the governing National Party actually helped to promote football. Black newspapers were not allowed to promote the opposition or to criticise the government and the capitalist system. John Nauright noted that black editors had to focus on "crime, sport and funerals." This emphasis endowed black sportspeople with celebrity status.

As fans, players and administrators black South Africans could give expression to their abilities and creativity.

Political leaders would use popular fixtures in the townships as a means by which they could address mass audiences. During the 1970s and 1980s the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko and the United Democratic Front frequently used football matches to address audiences.

Sport also took on a symbolic role in the newly liberated nation. Nelson Mandela marked his presidential inauguration on May 10 1994 by watching Bafana Bafana ("the boys, the boys") take on Zambia, the first international contest to be played in democratic South Africa.

There is no doubting the popularity of football. Some commentators have even suggested that the World Cup is the most important national moment since the end of apartheid and the election of Mandela.

Cricket and rugby may have been promoted as the sports most likely to unify South Africa's different population groups, but football has proved the most popular sport among Africans, especially in urban areas.

It remains popular because of its simplicity. Unlike cricket it is inexpensive, unlike rugby it is relatively easy to play. It offers excitement, experiences outside the workplace and emotional attachment.

Its popularity ensures that it can be analysed through the same eyes as those who look at the wider South Africa. Football has to be set in context to social themes. The eras of segregation and apartheid both shaped early South African sport just as the current stage of the liberation process will.

Many will be looking at the World Cup in South Africa as a guide to how the nation has dealt with the problem of exclusion in the last 20 years.

Critics have argued that transformation has been too slow. South Africa's neoliberal agenda means that capitalism has remained intact and those who benefitted from apartheid remain, albeit alongside a small black elite, a privileged group.

There are accusations that the World Cup will benefit only tourists and the middle class, with the huge sums being spent at the expense of millions of poor blacks still living in shacks without jobs or basic services.

But football is not played in most Afrikaner schools and the World Cup will provide an opportunity for the sport to become more inclusive.

However, it would be a travesty if those South Africans able to afford the entrance fees come from a non-footballing background while those who have grown up following and playing the sport cannot afford to get in.

June 16 marks the date of the Soweto Uprising when more than 500 protesters were gunned down for demanding equality. Now celebrated in South Africa as Youth Day, it is also the date that South Africa play Uruguay.

This fusion of politics and football may be accidental, but the role that politics has played in the nation's favourite sport is a lengthy one and one that shows no sign of going away.

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