Sport: A Tool for Bridging Racial Divides in Present Day South Africa

Solomiya Pyatkovska

May, 2011

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame

April 27th, 1994 is viewed by many as a day when one of the most brutal and oppressive systems of race relations in recent history came to an end. That day that marks an official end to the apartheid system of government in South Africa--when the country held free and fair elections, where both black and white South Africans were able to cast their votes.

Apartheid, as an official government system, lasted nearly 50 years. It drew on a long history of tense racial relations in South Africa. Yet it far exceeded previous experiences in that country due to its total, brutal, and oppressive nature. Nearly every aspect of life was segregated - from education, to employment opportunities, to recreation. Black South Africans were not only separated but oppressed-- through measures such as restriction of movement, inferior social services, and overall lack of political, social, and economic rights.

Years after the formal end of apartheid, the country still suffers from lingering effects of the oppressive system as reflected in various patterns of structural violence and inequality. One of the most glaring examples of lasting systematic effects is discussed by authors Nicoli Nattrass and Jeremy Seekings in their work “Two Nations? Race and Economic Inequality in South Africa Today.” The topic of their analysis is economics. After a detailed and complex analysis, the authors acknowledge that “unsurprisingly, given South Africa’s history of apartheid, there is still a strong correlation between race and household income.”[1] However, economic inequality and injustice is not the only area of life in South Africa that demonstrates the enduring effects of the apartheid.

One of the spheres of social life that was directly affected under apartheid was sport. Under apartheid, sport in South Africa was segregated by race, which not only contributed to the blacks' oppression, but also resulted in the emergence of a powerful opposition and resistance tool. Sport was an internationalized battleground against apartheid, with South Africa being routinely excluded from major sports competitions, including the FIFA international football competitions. Sport has also become a much highlighted vehicle of rebuilding relationships in South Africa after apartheid came to an end, from grassroots level efforts to national and global events such as the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Sport, thus, has a very loaded, apartheid-tainted history in South Africa, making its present-day use as a tool of bridging divides between racial groups in that country a difficult and complex undertaking.

The theory and practice of using sport as a tool for economic and human development as well as a means of building bridges in divided societies have become well established in the past several decades. Organizations at many levels, from the United Nations, to the National Basketball Association in the United States, to small community-based non-profits all over the world are currently engaged in sport for development and peace projects. The United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace often acts as an umbrella association for international organizations like Right To Play, Peace Players International, Grassroot Soccer, and many others. These organizations pursue activities based on the belief that “sport as a universal language can be a powerful tool to promote peace, tolerance and understanding by bringing people together across boundaries, cultures and religions… in the advancement of solidarity, social cohesion and peaceful coexistence.”[2] However, while a number of successful sport-for-peace programs can attest to the great possibilities for such a vision, implementation of sport-for-peace programs in divided societies brings about many challenges and the record of such efforts is mixed and understudied.

In his “Critical Left-realism and Sport Interventions in Divided Societies”, John Sugden provides both an alternative and a fairly skeptical overview of sport for development and peace work, as well as a critical reflection on its effects in South Africa. For example, Sugden states that sport, instead of uniting diverse communities and creating zones for communication and relationship building, has often “demonstrated an unequalled capacity to generate violence and conflict both on and off the field.”[3] In the extreme, Sugden provides the example of “the soccer war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 whereby a series of hotly contested World Cup qualifying matches between two countries that were already in conflict over territorial and trade issues led to a short war that left more than 30,000 killed or wounded.”[4] Insightfully, Sugden concludes that sport can contribute to both extremes. South Africa is a perfect example of how careful planning and choices around sports and sports culture can result in either a positive peacebuilding outcome or in hostile divisiveness and oppression amongst different groups in a particular social community. As Sugden states, “Under apartheid sport both symbolized and reinforced a white-dominated pattern of ethnic and racial stratification and power relation. Since the end of apartheid sport has played a dramatically different role in the construction of the new South Africa,”[5] Sport has become closely linked to efforts promoting multiculturalism and cross-racial understanding.

In regard to large scale events, the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa provided ample opportunity to implement sport for peace theories and practices and to observe the effects, if any, such an event would have on cross-community relations in the still deeply divided society. In the end, the World Cup in South Africa emerged with a mixed record concerning the goal of unifying South Africans and bettering cross-racial relations. For instance, the 2010 FIFA World Cup was marred by controversy over certain economic decisions that surrounded the building of facilities, contracts, and affected communities. Some communities benefitted from the income brought by the event, while others experienced a diversion of critical resources to the event planning activities away from projects that supported their livelihoods. Often, those controversies intertwined with racial tensions and divisions in South Africa. However, the economics of World Cup, while an important subject of study, is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, the rest of this paper will examine activities organized around the World Cup that specifically aimed to improve race relations in South Africa and evaluate their effectiveness.

The official 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa website lists a number of peacebuilding events that accompanied the tournament. For example, Football for Hope Festival 2010 brought together “32 teams of young people from disadvantaged communities across the globe… for a festival of education, culture and football”[6]. This program was aimed at promoting and extending their activities using soccer to advance positive social change. Additional activities and mass campaigns addressed racial relations in the South African context. For instance, the South African government and the national media launched a series of “national unity campaigns”[7] with the goal of using momentum from the World Cup to continue healing still-tense race relations in the country. Campaigns such as ‘Fly the Flag for Football!’ encouraged public displays of symbolic unity and increased efforts for country wide cooperation in the months preceding the soccer tournament.

Activities surrounding the spirit of World Cup generated a unified South African narrative which emphasized non-racial attitudes and concepts of multicultural citizenship. In “The Impact of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on South African Race Relations”, Uyo Salifu highlights the fact that “worldwide commendation of South Africa’s culture and World Cup preparedness rallied a sense of pride in being South African and could give all South Africans another reason to embody nation-building, instead of racial reservations.”[8] Moreover, it encouraged increased social interactions between black and white South Africans, sometimes in locations and social settings that have seen very little positive cross-cultural interactions. In “Racial Reconciliation and the World Cup: Moving from One Struggle to Another”, Kyle G. Brown comments on the positive aspects of interactions between adult white and black South Africans: “Bars and pubs, once the haunts of either a black or a white crowd, now are brimming with both.”[9] Moreover, the mixed South African fan crowd united almost exclusively behind the national team, irrespective of both the history of racial segregation in top level athletics in the country and the still present current difficulties of promoting multicultural competitive teams on all levels.

The cross-racial relations in South Africa in the immediate time frame leading up to the World Cup of 2010 were publicly and privately complex. In “The impact of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on South African Race Relations”, Uyo Salifu states that the “evidence of a united front was apparent… race even appeared to become invisible as all South Africans, irrespective of colour, cheered for the national team.”[10] Nevertheless, Salifu admits that not all was harmonious and well in South African race relations in the context of the upcoming World Cup. Just months prior to the opening of the games, the Los Angeles Times printed a story under the following headline “Song, Killing Raise Racial Tensions in South Africa.” The story highlighted a series of racially charged incidents, including a murder, that left “many South Africans wondering how race relations could have reached such a low ebb at what should have been a moment of national optimism.”[11] Certainly, these tensions continued to be present during and after FIFA World Cup.

In the long term, it remains to be seen whether the spirit of unity and cooperation coupled with sport for peace activities that surrounded the 2010 World Cup in South Africa will have a positive impact on the race relations in that country. However, a strong argument can be made for the positive impact on race relations associated with the World Cup. In some sense, the World Cup drew attention to existing inequalities among South African citizens in regard to sport. For example, in “Sport as Opportunity for Community Development and Peacebuilding in South Africa”, Professor Marion Keim highlights “the continued lack of support for sport and recreation programmes in our public schools and communities at the same moment that millions are invested into star players for international competition.”[12] Moreover, it is often the black South African communities that suffer from the lack of resources and development in the sphere of sporting activities. If this continues, sport, instead of a unifying force, can be another factor that divides South Africans along racial and class lines.

The World Cup, in this respect, seems to have made a positive difference. Various public-private partnerships emerged in association with the event that currently are engaged in ‘legacy projects’ aimed at carrying the momentum of the World Cup forward by improving social conditions in South Africa. One such project is headlined by First National Bank, which has pledged to “invest R40-million (US 5.8 million) in developing the country’s young footballers over the next few years.”[13] While the bank’s project does focus on the development of top level talent, it also pours resources intro reviving soccer opportunities in schools across South Africa. Resources are also directed towards creating and renovating community spaces for the game in many neighborhoods, some of them highly disadvantaged and neglected. Ideally, this spread of resources over the next few years will contribute to equalizing opportunities for all South African children, irrespective of their race, turning sport into a shared, unifying experience. This method of using sport for development and peace will contribute to alleviating cross-race grievances, creating spaces for multicultural interactions and communications. Sport can contribute to the process of overcoming divisions of the apartheid past and to building a stronger and more just South Africa today and for the future.

[1] Nattrass, Nicoli and Seekings, Jeremy. “Two Nations”? Race and Economic Inequality in South Africa Today. Daedalus, Vol.130, No.1 (Winter, 2001); pg.49

[2] United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace. Why Sport?: Sport and Peace. Accessed 12 March 2011

[3] Sugden, John. “Critical left-realism and sport interventions in divided societies.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Vol.45, No.3 (2010); pg.261

[4] Sugden, John. “Critical left-realism and sport interventions in divided societies.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Vol.45, No.3 (2010); pg.261

[5] Sugden, John. “Critical left-realism and sport interventions in divided societies.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Vol.45, No.3 (2010); pg.262

[6]FIFA. 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. Football for Hope Festival: Celebrating the power of football to create social change around the world. Accessed 14 March 2011

[7] Salifu, Uyo. “The impact of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on South African race relations.” Consultancy Africa Intelligence: Africa Watch. (02 August 2010) Accessed 10 March 2011

[8] Salifu, Uyo. “The impact of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on South African race relations.” Consultancy Africa Intelligence: Africa Watch. (02 August 2010) Accessed 10 March 2011

[9] Brown, Kyle G. “Racial reconciliation and the World Cup: Moving from one struggle to another.” CBC Sports. (30 June 2010) Accessed 10 March 2011

[10] Salifu, Uyo. “The impact of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on South African race relations.” Consultancy Africa Intelligence: Africa Watch. (02 August 2010) Accessed 10 March 2011

[11] Dixon, Robyn. “Song, killing raise racial tensions in South Africa.” Los Angeles Times. (10 April 2010) Accessed 8 March 2011

[12] Keim, Marion. “Sport as Opportunity for Community Development and Peace Building in South Africa.” International Conference on Sport and Development at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. (01 January 2006); pg.1 Accessed 18 March 2011   

[13] Nkosi, Bongani. “FNB pours R40m into local football.” 2010 World Cup legacy. (14 December 2010). Accessed 13 March 2011