Saturday, June 19, 2010

South Africa and Soccer

Millions probably learned more about South Africa in the last few days than they ever knew, as a result of the coverage of the World Cup. I myself never knew they had a Youth Day, a holiday to commemorate the students who protested apartheid, and their inferior (Bantu) education in particular, including the many who lost their lives as a result. I'm not a soccer fan but the footage of the buoyant South African faces, the colorful attire of Zulu women with their signature hat crowns, and the design of the South African flag itself have been captivating.

I don't wish to be in that stadium mashed in with all the people and melting into the buzzing sound of those horns, the vuvuzelas, but I want to visit South Africa. I want to witness what was brought into being in that land through struggle, sacrifice, and generosity of spirit. I want to witness the beauty of Capetown's landscape as well as the shanty towns that still exist. I want to be on that soil and pay homage. I will never forget the day I stood for 7 hrs, along with my daughter, along with hundreds of other black folks in Harlem to see Nelson Mandela. What a moment! There was an amazing electricity of connection in the crowd, a love voltage, a feeling of being joined with and validated by his freedom.

How sad that his joy at having the World Cup held in his land has been stolen by the tragic loss of his great granddaughter. Divine timing is hard to understand at times. How unbearable for her mother, who wrote such a lovely piece about her daughter, saying in essence that she should have allowed her to wear all the make up she wanted to wear, let her sleep later when she said she was tired because maybe if she had her daughter would come back to her so that she could hold her one more time.

But that does seem to be the nature of life, grief and joy, horror and grandeur, dry and soaked side by side, even as it seems like one does not leave room for the other, and yet there they both are, time after time. I've enjoyed seeing the locks on some of the soccer players, the natural hairstyle of Graca Machel, Mandela's wife, the young people teaching the soccer dance, and hearing the melody of the South African national anthem. I didn't see Desmond Tutu dance but I can imagine so well this expressive man who calls out what needs to be called, who bent over with grief during the Truth & Reconciliation Commission at hearing the inhumanity of man. Such greatness abounds!

And yet one thing I'm tired of in the coverage is the repeated message of African teams unable to win even as the hosting continent for the World Cup. It has been difficult to see the losses, especially the two games South Africa played. I was rooting for them to win, for themselves, their country and the continent. And that very yearning is what I see as the subtext to all the commentary of the reported "heartbreak" of the African teams. You might host the World Cup but you're still inferior. Maybe that's just my imagination, or a reflection of my own woundedness from the historic shaming of Africa. But if I know that I have more healing to do, then it's likely that others do too. This legacy of shame is not like baby oil on the skin that leaves its mark as a sheen on the surface, it's more like BP oil in the Gulf that's coloring the ocean's surface and the depths you cannot see from sailing. A fishing boat with deep net, maybe.


  1. Dee, I encourage you to make that trip to South Africa. I spent a memorable two weeks there in 2005. I visited Johannesburg, the Soweta surburb, Capetown and Durban. Seeing Nelson Mandela's cell at Robben Island, though emotionally not as painful, it brought back memories of the room of no return at Goree Island. The guide had been a prisoner there during part of Mandela's stay. The monument to Mandela's stay is a pile of rocks on the grounds that Mandela made which reportedly consists of a rock for each day he was imprisoned there. The rocks are from the rock quarry in which he was forced to work.
    The visit to Soweta, a huge area, consisting of housing as varied as one would see in a U.S. major city ranging from Desmond Tutu's very securely structured residence to areas of shanties galore. Indeed I was reminded of some of our areas of urban decay. We did enjoy a fabulous buffet meal of pure South African cuisine there.

    Ninety-five percent of our guides were Afrikans. I was struck by the optimism they all seem to have about the tremendous progress that had been made since apartheid. I can't say that I am surprised given the years of attitude of the majority population here following the "civil rights" era. Most of the guides purportedly led protected lives during apartheid and professed ignorance of the breath and depth of the apartheid process.
    Capetown is a beautiful city. While shopping in a very large mall two of our group were overhead talking and recognized as Americans by a New York metropolitan opera diva who had been there for six months training a cast of performers. She invited our group and arranged for reduced tickets to a performance. It was a fabulous performance. I don't know how the group felt about her but she was in awe of them.
    Gale Johnson was the most impressive person we met. This redheaded Afrikan several years earlier adopted a Black boy who had AIDS and who had died. She was continuing to keep a promise to him to help other children who had AIDS. During the last year of his life her son at 12 y.o. spoke at a world HIV/AIDS conference and appealed to the audience to help other children like him. At the time of our visit she had a small residential area for children with AIDS and some educational activities. She had plans for expansion and utilized her previous experience and skills acquired in the hotel industry to raise funds internationally. About three weeks ago Gale Johnson was the featured ABC person of the week. They showed her son speaking at that conference and the facility that she currently has which is many times larger than it was in 2005.
    I don't really think you need encouragement from me to visit South Africa but you have it anyway. I wanted to share with you a little of my experience.


  2. Thanks BT for sharing so generously. I saw that ABC broadcast that featured Gale Johnson. Yes Yes, I'm going. Just a matter of when. As of this moment, Africans are no longer in the World Cup and the Latin Americans are falling fast. Ghana's defeat was particularly heart breaking given the fluke failure to capitalize on the chance they had before the penalty kicks. Alas, life is fickle and we all have to recover from all degrees of disappointment.