Soccer’s Obama Moment: South Africa’s World Cup In Context

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Millions around the world are counting down to June 11, 2010.  That’s the date the first soccer World Cup ever to be played in Africa will kick off in Johannesburg, South Africa.  If you haven’t taken notice beyond Charlize Theron’s antics at the drawing or just don’t care, it’s time to become a fan or at least pay attention.  Pay attention because South Africa hosting the World Cup will be a historic moment of first black president proportions.

The South African story is a powerful, historical narrative.  It’s filled with oppression, struggle, and overcoming adversity.  This moment is about much more than soccer.

This is a country where institutionalized apartheid was in effect until 1992.  That’s right, 1992.  Since the beginning of the apartheid era in 1948, countless South Africans have given their lives for basic equality. When South Africa kicks off against Mexico on June 11, 2010, South Africans will break down in tears the same way so many of us did on election night.

It doesn’t matter whether you follow soccer.  For all who care about equality and social justice, the South African story should shed light on why this World Cup is not just a game.  Some context:

1990: Nelson Mandela took his first steps into the world after being imprisoned for twenty-seven years.  I vividly recall watching this moment on television.  I also vividly recall listening to Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison”, Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance”, Vanilla Ice’s sadly groundbreaking “Ice Ice Baby”, and, um, Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around the World” (don’t front) right around the same time.  You remember what life was like then?  Well, in South Africa that was two years before the government repealed major pieces of apartheid legislation like the Group Areas Act that provided the legislative basis to separate whites and non-whites in public places.

1992: A whites-only referendum paved the way to equality in South Africa.  We were jamming to Boys II Men’s “Motownphilly”, LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl”, Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love”, and Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” on MTV on this side of the Atlantic.  Meanwhile South Africans were celebrating the end of institutionalized apartheid.  Had we been jamming to the aforementioned hits in South Africa, we would have been jamming in racially segregated areas.  1992.  No integrated jamming allowed.

1994: South Africa held its first democratic elections where people of all races were allowed to vote.  You might recall the image of Nelson Mandela voting that day.  Remember where you were in 1994? I bet you remember where you were during the O.J. episode.  Well if Orenthal James Simpson was living in South Africa only a few years earlier, the South African police would likely have stopped his white Bronco to make sure he had a pass.  But he also might not have been joy riding in the first place because if had married Nicole Brown Simpson in South Africa, he would have been arrested for violating the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act.

If your good memories from 1994 came from watching Pulp Fiction, or listening to Snoop Dogg’s Gin & Juice or even Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis, consider how much happier you would have been if that year marked the first time you could legally cast a ballot in your own country.  Considerably happier, I imagine.

2010: Roughly sixteen years after Mandela voted, South Africa is on its third post-apartheid President, none of whom could have legally lived in the same neighborhood as previous South African leaders prior to 1992.  Since the ’94 elections, South Africa has hosted the Rugby World Cup (a topic worthy of its own article and the subject of recent movie, Invictus), and is about to host the world’s largest sporting event.  That this is happening only sixteen years after people of all races gained the right vote shows how far South Africa has come in such a short period of time.

The United States doesn’t have a monopoly on black history-making moments and remarkable journeys.  Change you can believe in is going on elsewhere too. June 11, 2010 is going to be one of those “where were you?” days.  Where were you when the biggest sporting event in the world kicked off on the African continent for the first time?   Where were you when South Africa finally emerged on the largest world stage fathomable after decades of isolation?

I hope we tune in to this event like so many people tuned in for the first time to our recent election. South Africa deserves this moment, and we owe it to ourselves to pay attention and cheer — if not for the games, then for what the games represent.

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