News / Opinion / Columns

Martin Williams
3 minute read
5 Jun 2019
9:05 am

The myth of sport uniting SA

Martin Williams

Our nation, like all others, is a myth that does not exist outside of what one author calls 'the common imagination of human beings'.

A South Africa fan during the Group Stage match of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 between South Africa and Bangladesh at The Oval on June 02, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

When comedian John Vlismas on Saturday asked a question during his latest show, I had an answer because I had read up on the subject.

Question: What separates us, Homo sapiens, from the rest? Answer: We share stories. Or, as Yuval Harari says in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the difference is that we can be mobilised by collective fiction, enabling us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.

Among the common fictions Harari identifies are “nationalist myths of modern states”. Got it? The state is a myth. Our state is one such creation.

Before 1910 there was no South Africa. It was an idea. The Union of South Africa was an arrangement between Brit and Boer uniting the Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange River Colony, without regard for black people’s rights. In 1961, the union ceased to exist. We became a republic, which assumed a mantle of democracy in 1994.

What Harari calls nationalist myths are sustained by, among other things, flags, anthems and sport.

Lincoln Allison, described as an international sport scholar, notes: “All kinds of governments, representing every type of political ideology, have endorsed international sporting competition as a testing ground for the nation or for a political system. German Nazis, Italian Fascists, Soviet and Cuban Communists, Chinese Maoists, western capitalist democrats, Latin America juntas – all have played the game and believed in it.”

National politics and sport are thus connected. We cite a unifying “Madiba Magic” (another myth) and look back to 1995 and 1996 as a golden age when our rugby and soccer teams excelled.

Now, the question is asked: what is wrong with SA sport? Experts blame political interference, quotas, coaches, poor selection, lack of discipline, zero talent, or no commitment from players. There is ample scope for debate. And for many of us, a good or bad result will settle the argument. Until the next game.

Some of us are moved when our national teams play, especially if contests are preceded by the singing of national anthems in stadiums festooned with flags. We are caught up in the myth. Emotions run high. We come to believe, along with former Scottish footballer Bill Shankly, that our sport is not a matter of life and death, it’s much more serious than that.

This came to mind during a Monday radio show bewailing national performances in cricket, football, rugby, etc. For fans of national sports, it was a glum weekend.

Occasionally we need to chill. Not to the extent of shrugging, “It’s just a game.” Rather something like this.

Our nation, like all others, is a myth which does not exist outside of what Harari calls “the common imagination of human beings”. Can you accept this idea? Sport helps sustain the myth but we can recognise it for what it is – shared human experience.

Enjoy the emotional roller-coaster but it is not a matter of life and death. Nor is it more important than that. Does sport really unite a nation? Yes, if we buy into the myths. But can a fractured nation produce consistently winning national teams? That’s another story.

Martin Williams, DA councillor and former editor of The Citizen.

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