Cry Bafanaby Roger Young, images by Syd Willow Smith / 18.06.2010
When I was very little my grandfather would tell me how, as a teenager, he had been sent to fight for England in WW2. The war had been dragging on, there was a troop shortage and therefore, training was short (not as brutally short as WW1 but still), and he was terrified. That trial by fire was not survived by many of the friends who went with him, but, he credited it for making him a man. He would get this look of hurt in his eye when he’d talk about it. The same look that I imagine, in years to come, Wednesday night’s Bafana squad will get when they talk about their match with Uruguay. Some of them will have survived, others will not.
Standing among the odd twenty five thousand people at the fan park in Cape Town before that game the sense of expectation was at a fever pitch, as if we could will it into being. I felt the force of it and, at first whistle, could not help but shed a tear; it was an unsustainable expectation, the boys would not be able to carry it on their shoulders. As the match ground on it was clear to everyone we were outclassed, but the high, the fervor of patriotic pride, the sense of this great event, sustained our hope. Until that red card. The moment that hope died. We had sent our boys to the slaughter, without lengthy training or real experience. We had built up a fable of glory in our heads and we were now shocked in the defeat. From a nation that hoped collectively, we became a nation that collectively gave up.
Fans started to leave the stadium in droves. In front of us, in the fan park, a man took the South African flag off his shoulders and packed it into his bag. His national pride became useless to him, the dream had been exposed as just that, an unreachable dream. Someone next to me cursed him, “Fuck you! How dare you give up now!” He shoved him a little, tried to convince him to take his flag back out. It got tense. The determined patriot against the convenient patriot. “You don’t turn your back just because they’re down!” He shouted. The convenient patriot shrugged, “We didn’t have a chance anyway” and made an exit while the others held back the weeping antagonist.
Sport is like that; people feel it intensely. Imagine what Bafana Bafana felt when they saw the backs of people as they left the stadium with fifteen minutes on the clock. Abandoned. It must have drained them. We sent them in and then we deserted them. The vuvuzelas went quiet, we were stripped of bluster and bravado.
But why were our hopes so high in the first place? It’s not as if we’ve been the most united nation lately. Maybe we just needed an excuse, a common cause, maybe, as trite as it sounds, we CAN all just get along. Who can say? All I know for sure is that for five days, from Friday 11th of June to Wednesday 16th June 2010, everything was possible, everything worked. It still is, it still can. Not for Bafana, but for us, collectively. We can still annoy the international TV viewing public with our vuvus, we can still sing only the parts of the anthem we know and understand and mumble the rest, and we can still smile in traffic at perfect strangers. Let’s just not be the guy who only picks up the flag because of the current mood. Let us not abandon each other, because like any come down, this is the moment we all need each other most, to hold onto the possibilities. Especially those war ravaged boys, who have now been made men.