It’s the national religion. Transcending race, politics or language group, sport unites the country – and not just the male half of it.
When a South African team wins, a cacophony of hooting, cheering, banging of dustbin lids, trumpeting on cow horns and fireworks reverberates across the largest cities. The national adrenaline goes into overdrive. Maybe even the GDP goes up. Just don’t look too cheerful on the Monday morning after a dismal sporting weekend!
Sport, like no other South African institution, has shown it has the power to heal old wounds. When the South African team, the Springboks, won the Rugby World Cup on its home turf in 1995, Nelson Mandela donned the No 6 shirt of the team’s captain – Francois Pienaar, a white Afrikaner – and the two embraced in a spontaneous gesture of racial reconciliation which melted hearts around the country.
A single moment, and 400 years of colonial strife and bitterness … suddenly seemed so petty.
It wasn’t always that way. During the apartheid era, racially segregated sport was one of the most divisive issues. There was the case of Cape Town cricketer Basil D’Oliviera, a world-class cricket talent who just happened to be born at the wrong time in the wrong place, with the wrong colour of skin. Disqualified from local first-class cricket on the grounds of race, D’Oliviera went to live in England in 1960, becoming one of the stars of the English team. He was selected for a 1968 tour of South Africa. The South African government barred him – an act of folly that offended even the crustiest British conservatives, and turned this country into a sporting pariah.
The rugby team in particular became synonymous with apartheid. Rugby was a British public school invention, played by the cream of colonial Anglo Saxon society. But in South Africa, it was Afrikaners who dominated the sport, and for them it was more than a game – it was an expression of resurgent Afrikaner nationalism, an opportunity for mauling, rucking, physical revenge against an old political foe. To black South Africans, rugby had a different meaning: it was a white man’s game, and a brutally hard one at that, the sport of the apartheid police, the apartheid army, and the apartheid government. The theme was taken up across the world. Each time a South African rugby team ventured abroad, it had to run a gauntlet of booing, egg-flinging protesters.
But it was a sporting moment that first helped healed the country’s racial rift. In 1992, the country returned to the Olympics for the first time since it was barred 32 years earlier. In the women’s 10 000 metre finals, two runners dominated the field, running shoulder to shoulder, lap after lap, way ahead of the field. One was South African Elana Meyer; the other was Ethiopian Derartu Tulu. With just metres to go, Tulu found the strength to suddenly kick ahead of Meyer and become the first African woman to win a major Olympics title. But the big moment was to follow, when Tulu and Meyer embraced, then ran a lap of honour together, each draped in her country’s national flag, a white Afrikaner and a black African together, cheered on by the crowds.
The major sports in which South Africa excels are the aristocratic British games of rugby and cricket. For close on a century, the country has regularly fielded teams of world-beating class, playing chiefly against arch-foes England, Australia and New Zealand. Thirty years of apartheid isolation has done some damage though, and locals mourn that the rugby team in particular is a shadow of its former self. Still, despite many international disappointments, both teams have in the past 12 years risen to the occasion and won international honours against the world’s toughest opposition. The next Cricket World Cup, in 2003, will be hosted by South Africa
The people’s game
But it is football (or soccer, as it is universally called here) that has won the hearts of the black majority. South Africa is by no means a giant in the world of soccer, but for many black South Africans, the country’s proudest sporting moment came when we won the African Cup of Nations on our home turf in 1996 – having failed to even qualify for the previous cup. Soccer is intensely followed and the quality of the local game keeps improving – as demonstrated by the increasing number of South African players-in-exile among the glamorous European clubs. The national team, nicknamed Bafana Bafana, which means “the boys”, is extraordinarily erratic, beating giants, then succumbing to minnows. Local teams, organised in a national league plus a plethora of knock-out cups, are followed with the same passion as in many other countries, by paint-daubed, costumed, whistling and cheering fans. Mercifully, the country has been spared the spectre of football hooliganism.
The list of South African sporting achievements goes much wider than the big three big sports. In a country of magnificent golf courses, for example, it is not unexpected to find that we have bred some world-beating stars, from Bobby Locke in the post-war period, to Grand Slam winner Gary Player – who walked away with more international trophies than his arch-rival Jack Nicklaus – to today’s stars Retief Goosen and Ernie Els. Player has been a major force behind the design of some of the spendid golf courses around the country; indeed there are tourists who visit the country for no other reason than golf. We have also bred world champions among our swimmers, athletes, surfers, boxers, tennis players and more. On this site we offer some potted biographies of a select few of those sporting greats.
South Africa is the home of world-class sporting facilities capable of accommodating tens of thousands of spectators in comfort, such as the picturesque Newlands grounds, nestled at the foot of Cape Town’s mountains, and the energy-charged Wanderers Cricket Grounds in Johannesburg. There are world-renowned rugby stadiums such as Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, home fortress of the feared “Blue Bulls” team; Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, where the 1995 World Cup final was staged, and Durban’s Kings Park, home of one of the best local sides, the Sharks. Keep a watch on the newspapers while you’re here – if a big international game is being played, it could be worth your while to go and watch.
American-style sports are somewhat rarer. Baseball has a small amateur following, but is a long way from displacing cricket. Basketball, completely unknown here 12 years ago, has recently become more popular, particularly amongst black youths impressed by infrequent glimpses of US basketball stars on local television. Basketball is now offered as a sport at many schools. American-style football is unknown – although a few recycled South African rugby players have enjoyed modest success on the gridiron in the twilight of their careers.
If you prefer to play sports yourself rather than lounge in front of a television set, South Africa is a breathtaking destination; in fact the trickiest part will be making a choice. The tiny village of Jeffrey’s Bay on the south-eastern coast, for example, has the misfortune of being one of the few scenically dull stretches along an otherwise spectacular coast. But Jeffrey’s Bay just happens to be a year-round host to the “perfect wave”, which is why it draws surfing champions from around the world. The even more remote Sodwana Bay in Zululand is home to the world’s southern-most coral reef, and a paradise for snorkelling and scuba diving.
South Africa offers some of the world’s toughest endurance races, including the Comrades Marathon (up a steep 90 kilometre incline between coastal Durban and mountainous Pietermaritzburg) and the Two Oceans, which wends its way amidst the mountains around Cape Town. Both races draw tens of thousands of competitors from all over the world, every year. There are several back-breaking canoe marathons, of which the king is the Duzi in Kwa-Zulu Natal, 170 kilometres of tortuous rapids, rocky hills and a myriad other discomforts … snakes, for example.
The mountains offer hiking, rock climbing and hang gliding. Bring binoculars; the birds are magnificent. Those parts of the great outdoors that are slightly flatter will allow you, for example, to ride bicycles, motorbikes or 4x4s through miles of mud and dirt. There is fishing and sailing, hot air ballooning and gliding, horse riding, bungee jumping over large ravines, and big game hunting. In short: there’s every form of summer sport you can expect from a country with a surfeit of sunshine and wide open space.
For those here on business and unlikely to stray far from the cities, there are plenty of fine places to walk, run or cycle. First prize is to do your exercising in the early evening among Cape Town’s magnificent forests and mountains. Durban offers the opportunity to run unimpeded along miles of golden beaches. And even in the concrete jungle itself, Johannesburg, you’ll find plenty of joggers and cyclists to keep you company in the parks.
South Africa is a land of sporting opportunities. Which opportunities are you going to seize?