The rugby World Cup is over and South Africa has won

Thus starts JM Coetzee’s piece on the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Last night, my neighbour and I were interviewed by a journalist writing for El Pais about the Rugby World Cup, transformation of the Springbok team, and the history, culture and politics of rugby and sport in South Africa. The interview on my part was happenstance; I was going to meet my neighbour for a neighbourly drink, and he was meeting the journalist an hour later, at the same place. As these things go in my neighbourhood, it turned out that we all somehow knew each other. I knew the go-between who set up the meeting between my neighbour and the journalist, the go-between – who once occupied the same house as my neighbour – had thought that I would be someone to interview, I knew the journalist, and so on. Curiously, that very afternoon I had been writing about local rugby during my childhood in Paarl and touched on the divisions in sport in South Africa.

I’m not going to outline my opinions and positions on this, except to say that it is a mish-mash of burnt-out left and dystopian perspectives; I in any case wouldn’t want to pre-empt the journalist, even if in a different language.

But I was reminded of JM Coetzee’s classic little piece on the 1995 World Cup, originally published in the Southern African Review of Books (#38, Jul/Aug 1995) and subsequently republished in his collection of essays, Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 (Secker and Warburg, 2001). I was reminded of it because discussion around the table insisted on seeing the 1995 victory as a moment or reality beyond its iconic value and that the ‘transformation’ of the Springbok team on the cards for next year threatens the unity created then, disregarding whether that unity was real or illusionary, a media moment and ephemeral. That is, that it united South Africa on a fundamental level, on a level that went beyond honking horns and dancing in the streets. That that moment was a valuable step towards nation building.

Yes, of course, if you believe that a sense of shared nationhood which overcomes more than 300 years of dispossession can be founded on a media spectacle, a spectacle which in any case, as Coetzee shows, is simply illiterate and ignorant. No matter the will to believe in originary myths, no matter how many groups or countries or nations have – and thrive – on originary myths, these myths tend to serve nationalism/tribalism. That we know that almost all countries and nations have originary myths – even require them as constitutive of the nation – makes it more necessary to scrutinise the myth itself, as well as the context in which it is deployed. That we know – or accept the truism – that all nations have originary myths makes it more pertinent to scrutinise our susceptibility to such originary myths. And no myth of a nation united in celebration at the 1995 victory can overcome – has overcome – the fact that South Africa remains a divided country. Myths, as always, help us in forgetting reality or in shaping or framing reality in the interests of power. Yes, the old phrase for it is false consciousness.

Coetzee ends:

Today’s image-makers and image-marketers have no interest in complex realities, or indeed in anything that cannot be expounded in fifteen seconds. The truth is, their trade is not in reality at all: it is in what they call perceptions. In this respect they are continuous with the people behind the South African government of the 1980s, the ideas men and academic advisors who saw the war their patrons were engaged in as a theatre of images in which they were losing because the world audience had a perception of them as racists lording it over a subject population and a perception of their opponents as a liberation movement. Their advice to their clients was to mount campaigns to reverse these perceptions, not to change their hearts and mend their ways (such advice would have seemed to them simply inappropriate, outside their assignment). In this banal sense, they were beyond good and evil. Those concerned with the real future of South Africa, starting with the State President and the good Archbishop, would do well to keep a firm distance between themselves and these shadow-players.

Read the full Coetzee article here.

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