Sport and Racism in South Africa…

I read with interest the Ruck & Maul column by Ashfak Mohamed in today’s Cape Times. Ashfak is a rugby fan who was at the SA v England game in Bloemfontein last Saturday.


Ashfak isn’t white. (There was a photo).


He described what we’ve all seen at rugby matches across South Africa, namely an almost complete absence of black and coloured fans in the crowd; an embarrassing and hostile silence through the first verse of the national anthem (which is sung in isiXhosa), followed by a bellowing of Die Stem (the Afrikaans verse which also used to be the national anthem of the “old” South Africa) and players of colour being racially abused for their mistakes on the pitch.
His citing of previous racism at matches in Bloemfontein for this overwhelming majority of white fans got me thinking. Also on Saturday was the ABSA Cup final between Ajax Cape Town and Sundowns (that’s a soccer* game, folks). One wonders how many white fans were at that game? I would wager that it was fewer than blacks and coloureds in Bloem. But is that a problem? Well, obviously, it is a problem when racial abuse stops people from watching sport** – whatever their colour. But is that really the reason that these two games were attended by such completely different crowds?
I think it is only one part of the story.

According to southafrica.info, “Sport is the national religion. Transcending race, politics or language group, sport unites the country”

I laughed when I read that. Yes, this country could have gone down the road of civil war in 1994 and it didn’t, and for that everyone should be thankful. But saying that life is settled and the country is united in any form just because there’s no civil war is like saying that England did well at the rugby because they didn’t lose by, say, 100 points. Those claiming “racial harmony” are, to coin a cockney phrase, “having a larf”. This country is amongst the most divided in the world.

Insecurity, paranoia, resentment, retribution, disillusionment and distrust are plainly evident the way many South Africans live their daily lives. Those reading this will probably snort and dismiss this. “That’s not me.” they’ll say. I beg to differ.


The population here is divided into those who won’t openly admit to there being a problem, those who see the issues but don’t have a problem with them and the other 1% who want to sort things out but can’t overcome the apathy or engrained racist attitudes of the other 99%. Of course, 99% of the South Africans reading this think that they’re in that 1% – and that’s exactly the problem.

But back to sport.

Because of the unique history of this country, the lines of division run through every aspect of life. But perhaps the most public of these is sport. Well, that and politics, but no-one reads posts about politics. Sport is neatly divided in three in this country: Rugby, Cricket and Soccer. Of course, there are other sports played here, but those are the biggies. Rugby and cricket get the most press. They are the “white” sports. What distresses many of the rugby and cricket fans is that the official national sport of South Africa is… er… the other one. And that’s because the majority of the sporting population play football. Rugby and cricket come in very much second and third. How embarrassing.


And while there is a huge push to get more coloured and black players into the national teams for rugby and cricket to make the team more representative of the racial make-up of the country (often despite the fact that the players in question aren’t actually very good), there is no reciprocal push to get white players into the soccer team.

Ashfak suggests that beacuse the ANC is in power in the Free State, there must be a lot of black people living there and they should have been at the game. Nice big tarring brush you have there, sir.
But it seems to me that the major reason for the obvious racial divisions in South African sport is that for the vast majority of whites, soccer holds no interest and for the vast majority of blacks, rugby holds no interest. And as long as those few who want to watch and play a sport from “the other side” can, I don’t see a problem.


So Ashfak, while I agree with your comments regarding the Afrikaaners and their small-minded and right-wing attitudes, I think the major reason for the nearly all-white crowd last Saturday was really because they were the only ones actually interested.

*I hate this word. Obviously, I mean football, but that would just confuse everyone.
**or indeed doing anything.