S African football haunted by ghost of apartheid

Image of Simon Kuper

It was only a national anthem, but it was one of those moments that makes you so proud of this improbable country. White and black South Africans got to their feet together in a freezing stadium in Pretoria and sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika in all its five languages, from Xhosa to Afrikaans. All right, some of us cried.

Then their team, the Bafana Bafana, got pasted by Uruguay, but in a sense it didn’t matter. What makes South Africa special isn’t a brilliant football team. It’s the fact that a united South Africa exists.

But now that the Bafana have become the first hosts ever to exit in the first round we need to ask why they aren’t brilliant. That leads us to the topic nobody here wants to mention in this moment of national unity: race. The non-white Bafana failed largely because they were still damaged by apartheid.

South Africa’s white sportsmen are, in a favourite South African word, “world-class”. The Springbok rugby team (cheering on the Bafana in the Pretoria cold) are world champions. The cricketers are winning in the west Indies. And white golfers like Ernie Els are world-beaters. The Bafana are not.

The South African author Mark Gevisser notes: “A lot could be said about the resources poured into rugby or cricket over generations to develop the game, as opposed to the dearth of resources that have been poured into football.” The inequality of resources survives today, as anyone touring Johannesburg’s overwhelmingly white northern suburbs will spot.

The most basic resources are food and healthcare. Every Bafana player was born under apartheid. Half the starters in their opening match were 1.75m or less – a freakishly short team by international standards. Steven Pienaar and Teko Modise simply looked too fragile for a World Cup. True, Aaron Mokoena is large – centre-backs are – but if the Bafana had a wider choice of big footballers this country of 48m people might have found someone more skilled than the Portsmouth man.

Generally, poor countries are poor at sport. The one great exception to the rule is Brazil, while Kenya, Ethiopia and Jamaica excel in one or two running disciplines. Otherwise, when the sports economist Stefan Szymanski and I analysed international sports results for our book Soccernomics, we found that the best performers a head were wealthy countries: Norway, Sweden, Australia, and white South Africa (treated as a separate nation). No wonder almost all African teams are leaving the World Cup this week.

Poverty hurts sporting performance in myriad ways. Poor countries tend to have poor organisation: the Bafana went through 13 coaches in 14 years before Carlos Alberto Parreira got the job. Poor countries tend to invest little in grassroots sport. Many talented South African footballers are spotted too late and then receive little good coaching. Modise played for tiny and now defunct clubs in the poor Limpopo region until he was 23. With better early coaching he would have been better. South Africa’s white cricketers and rugby players meanwhile, get brilliant coaching on perfect pitches at school.

Poverty damaged South African football in another way too: it fostered isolation. White South Africans learnt perfect English at school, travelled abroad, and were encouraged to benchmark themselves against whites in other countries. When sanctions against South Africa ended, the first priority of rugby and cricket was to succeed internationally. But most black South Africans remained largely isolated.

Few in South Africa want to hear these arguments now. Some white South Africans believe that as apartheid was abolished in 1994 it is absurd to bang on about its legacy. I have had several conversations in Johannesburg with whites who place the Bafana’s failure in the context of the country’s long-running argument over “standards”.

Conservative whites say that there are absolute, colour-blind standards; you have to meet them, whether you’re a student or civil servant or footballer; and the Bafana simply don’t meet those standards.

Thabo Mbeki referred to this white line of argument in 1998, shortly before his unhappy presidency: “Some of what is said is that black management in the public service equals inefficiency, corruption and a lowering of standards.”

Black South Africans sometimes dismiss white talk about standards as “racism”. They could make another point instead: true, the Bafana don’t meet international “standards”. That’s because they haven’t been given the resources to meet them. As Mr Mbeki said: “Correctly, to refer to the reality that our past determines the present is to invite protests and ridicule.”

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