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Sunday Times STLive By Mark Gevisser, 2010-05-09

'I want to imagine the SA of my dreams'

Another View: The World Cup is not about stadiums. It's about revealing the nation that continues to debate its freedom, writes Mark Gevisser

Last month, for the London Book Fair, I took up the whistle to "ref" a panel of exciting young South African authors "kicking the ball around" on what the World Cup means to the home team.

Fascinatingly, and unexpectedly, the match turned out to be between the South African panellists on stage at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room, and the audience in the auditorium. And the way it all came to a head prompted me to buy a ticket home.

Volcanic ash meant that several of the participants were unable to make it to the book fair, which had a South African focus this year. But I was pleased to announce that we could call off the bench the former ANC MP and arms deal-buster Andrew Feinstein and the award-winning playwright Nadia Davids (both of whom live in London), and that, for one match only, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, the Lucas Radebe of South African letters, would be coming out of retirement to play at being a young South African author.

On stage, they joined fiction writers Zukiswa Wanner and Henrietta Rose-Innes, and we began to talk about how we felt about the World Cup. Feinstein and Davids, in particular, criticised the expenditure on the tournament, Davids citing the subject of her latest play, the activist Cissie Gool: "How can you build a stadium in a sea of poverty?"

We spoke about South Africa's obsession with reputation ("world class!"), and about the manic-depressive nature of the South African psyche: we're either "the world's greatest fairytale" or the next Zimbabwe. We spoke about how patriotism sneaked up on us: Feinstein wept at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and Wanner is gobsmacked that she finds herself singing the national anthem along with the team. And we spoke - how could we not? - about winning and losing.

When it was Ndebele's turn, I regretted immediately comparing him to Radebe: his soft, sure touch made him nothing less than a Pelé. He began obliquely by talking about one of the great loves of his life: Moroka Swallows. The worse they played, the deeper his affection ran: "They play, they lose, and I love them." His manner, self-effacing yet authoritative, made the point: you don't need a team to win to love them; you don't need a country to be "world class" to think it's great, or that you're OK.

It was masterful, a beautiful pass across the somewhat cranky critiques of the others (myself included) on stage. But not clear enough, yet, to set up a goal: in question time, the audience took the ball in another direction entirely. Our critiques might be valid and informed, a Londoner said, but weren't we missing the point? Was the World Cup not a celebration of both Africa and the Beautiful Game? How could you put a price on that?

Several audience members made the same point. I looked around the hall and clocked the demographic: most of those present were either South Africans or - the greater part - progressive Londoners passionate about football, or the kind of African upliftment that the World Cup promises, or both. An older woman, clearly steeped in the culture of international solidarity, urged us to consider the importance of national happiness in South Africa; a "Saffer" asked us, plaintively, to talk about the "mood on the ground", which she believed was more ebullient than we allowed. Why, she wanted to know, weren't we more celebratory?

I offered that, while the US constitution guaranteed the right to happiness - a fabulous thing - the South African one entrenched the right to dignity, as did the German one; testimony to the two nations' traumatic histories. I suggested that a successful World Cup would have to offer both happiness and dignity to South Africans: those rich enough to attend a match, and those too poor, even, to have access to a television.

But it was Pelé Ndebele who saved the day. Davids had spoken about how, back home, you were compelled to be "for" the World Cup or "against" it, and how she resisted such binarism. Now Ndebele took the notion a step further, converting it - in this humble referee's opinion - into a goal. What we were doing that night, he said, was precisely the kind of celebration the audience members seemed to be longing for. The gathering and the discussion was precisely the reason why South Africa was "world class", with or without an international commercial jamboree; with or without a winning team.

This is what I understood from Ndebele: what the world needed to celebrate about South Africa - what we needed to celebrate in ourselves - was the way we had talked our way out of civil war and into freedom; how we continued to hold - on every corner, around every table - the national conversation on freedom. This, rather than the rah-rah of a football win or the sparkle of a stadium, is what defines us; this is what makes us South African. This, rather than the billions squandered on bling in the bushveld, is a future we can bank on. This is our "brand essence".

I'm not sure if anyone noticed that my voice cracked a little as I blew the final whistle that spring evening. During the discussion, I had repeated what my friend Mario, a German, had said about seeing the 2006 World Cup in Berlin at a time when the wall still stood firm, metaphorically, between East and West: "Watching those matches in the fan zones gave us the opportunity to imagine, for a few brief weeks, the Berlin of our dreams."

My anger at both Fifa and the South African government remains unstemmed: for the obscenity of the World Cup expenditure, and the lie that it is going to provide some kind of economic redemption. But the way things panned out in the Purcell Room made me feel that I needed to be back, if at all possible, for at least some of the World Cup. So I'm coming home in June: I want to imagine the South Africa of my dreams.

  • Gevisser is writer-in-residence at the University of Pretoria. He lives between Paris and Johannesburg