Long into the afternoon, hours after the final whistle blew in Yokohama on Saturday, there were still intermittent bursts of delirious hooting on the freeway near my home as rugby fans revelled in the Springboks’ win on the other side of the world.
It would be too easy and almost certainly mistaken to discount this and other public demonstrations of Saturday’s sporting rapture as a merely temporary moment of unreality, a country succumbing briefly to an illusion of togetherness and one-ness of mind.
Sunday morning dawned, after all, on a South Africa materially unchanged – a society of high unemployment, low economic growth, poor schooling, rising prices, widespread violent crime and sobering debts.
But there are good reasons to believe that the celebrations the day before are not unconnected with who we are as a society or what we struggle with. They illuminate, in fact, a central feature of the actual condition of post-apartheid South African-ness – the unity of purpose that so much of our politics and our political thinking erodes, and sometimes even means to erode.
This unity of spirit – far too rarely realised or acknowledged – was captured in the simple words used by Springbok captain Siya Kolisi in his remarks moments after coming off the field of play.
‘We have so many problems in our country,’ Kolisi said, ‘but a team like this … we come from different backgrounds, different races, but we came together with one goal and we wanted to achieve it.’
In an observation in which one couldn’t help detecting an idea the Springbok captain surely hoped would resonate beyond the sports sphere and the joyousness of his team’s World Cup triumph, Kolisi said: ‘I have never seen South Africa like this. We were playing for the people back home. We can achieve anything if we work together as one.’
As if he felt this needed emphasis – and we think it does – he concluded: ‘I really hope we’ve done that for South Africa. Just shows that we can pull together if we want to achieve something.’
And he is, of course, talking about a great deal more than merely the 32-12 victory over England.
It is of more than sentimental interest.
On the eve of the game, ratings agency Moody’s lowered its view on South Africa’s credit rating from stable to negative. As commentator Justice Malala wrote: ‘The red light has been flashing for ages for SA’s spineless leaders, but this latest Moody’s move means that the country has a mere 18 months to fix its problems before being dumped to junk status.’
The Moody’s announcement prompted finance minister Tito Mboweni to say in distinctly troop-rallying register: ‘Fellow South Africans, now is the time to roll up our sleeves and do what we have to do. It’s now or never. We need all hands on deck. Government, labour, business and civil society, we need each other now more than ever. The country is ours and it is only [we] who can turn it around.’
The convergence in tone and sentiment of Mboweni’s call to arms and Kolisi’s invocation of national spiritedness is telling.
What’s missing? And why do we keep being impressed by these truths?
We cheer for them – these ideas of mutual interest and the collective effort needed to realise their benefits – not only because they are rare in our public life, but because they are true for how most of us think and feel.
Polling we have done over the years at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) bears out just how widely shared the really quite plain sentiments Kolisi voiced in Yokohama are, along with the sense of belonging and responsibility urgently expressed by Mboweni.
The latest polling, captured in our Unite the Middle report of earlier this year, shows that South Africans are mostly united in what they think the government’s priorities should be – job creation, combating crime and corruption, and improving education. (Seventy-four percent of black respondents believe that, ‘with better education and more jobs, inequality between the races will disappear’.) Most people do not regard racism as a major threat.
The results show that most – six in ten – South Africans believe race relations have improved since the end of apartheid in 1994, with a similar proportion saying they had never personally experienced racism.
Perhaps the most positive finding is that nearly 90% of South Africans (86% of black respondents in the survey) believe the different race groups need one another for the country to make progress.
Among other findings are that most South Africans want people to be appointed to jobs on merit, with special training for disadvantaged people, irrespective of race; most want sports teams to be selected on merit and not race quotas; and most don’t care what the race of their child’s teacher is, as long as that teacher is good.
The majority of South Africans, moreover, feel that politicians use talk of racism and colonialism as excuses for their own failures.
The author of the report, IRR head of policy research Dr Anthea Jeffery, concludes that ‘racial goodwill remains strong’, and that this ‘is an important and very positive phenomenon’.
‘It is also a tribute to the perceptiveness and sound common sense of most South Africans. Despite the urgings of politicians and many other commentators, most ordinary people have avoided over-simplifying complex issues by blaming them on race. This provides important reason for hope – and a vital foundation for building an increasingly stable and prosperous society.’
This, in the idiom, is where Team SA is at.
It is the basis of the IRR’s #CommonSense campaign to focus the attention of the country’s political leaders on the things that matter most to people, and which stand the best chance of turning the country around.
At the heart of it is that simple idea that ‘we can achieve anything if we work together as one’, in the words of the celebrated captain of the national rugby squad.
All that’s missing is an acknowledgement from the country’s political leaders that society is ready and waiting to join in crafting the better, fairer and more prosperous future it wants – if only those leaders would find the good sense to adopt Siya Kolisi’s credo.
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