Thursday, January 31, 2013

Owning four Bafana shirts does not make me South African

Yesterday, I bought a new Bafana jersey. I now own four Bafana shirts. I only own three England football shirts. This does not make me South African (despite knowing the words to Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika).

Bafana shirt number four, and possibly my favourite.

I wasn't going to buy one but with all the Bafana shirts reduced by R200 in my local Totalsports shop, I couldn't resist. After all, I hadn't bought one since 2010. I had toyed with the idea of getting one but the astronomical R599 price tag had put me off. However, at R399, this was enough to make me falter and eventually I couldn't resist.

Yet, through all this, many questions arose and still remain unanswered:
  1. Bearing in mind that the core demographic of domestic football support in the country comes from the black, working class with very limited disposable income, who on earth thought that it was a good idea to charge R599 in the first place?
  2. If people can't afford the national jersey, does this then create a gulf between the "authentic" supporter with their official merchandise and those who have not?
  3. South Africa are hosting the continent's biggest football tournament and they've progressed beyond the group stage for the first time since 2002. It seems strange for a national chain to reduce prices now rather than after the tournament has finished.
What on earth is happening here?

Asking the shop assistant why they had been reduced by a third, he responded with the reason that Bafana supporters could buy the shirt and have money left over to put petrol in the tank or do food shopping. A noble sentiment perhaps but highly implausible that a national chain of sports shops would have such a social conscience.

While I may have been persuaded/ persuaded myself that R399 was reasonable for the shirt, it still remains extortionate for many in this country, especially for those who struggle to pay the R30-50 ticket price for a domestic Premier Soccer League match. Now some may (rightly) disagree here but in the modern, global game, buying the official merchandise of your team/ nation has become a key signifier of your authenticity as a supporter of said team/ nation. My own research on football fans in Johannesburg often bore this out. Sometimes those with pirated copies, out-of-date shirts and those without were seen as a lower level of supporter or fan by those who had the shirt. There were occasions when those who did not have were mocked by those who did. The current PSL league leaders, Kaizer Chiefs, sell two types of replica shirt. The more expensive is the authentic replica made from the same material as the players' shirts but at R599-699, there aren't many regular supporters who will be able to support them. The cheaper "supporters shirt" is made from cheaper, lower-grade material. R350-399 makes this more accessible but still not cheap. There is an economic segregation happening in the stands of South African football matches.

But let's put this into a bit of context. This doesn't just happen in South Africa but is a global problem. The distinction between those who can afford to buy the shirt and who can't and those who can afford the ticket price and those who can't is becoming wider. It's just in South Africa where economic disparity is so great that it is far more noticeable here.

So why has Totalsports reduced the cost of Bafana shirts at this stage of the Africa Cup of Nations? Maybe after all, they do have a heart and are allowing more South Africans to literally buy into Bafana?

Or maybe they just bought far too much stock thinking that 2013 would be like 2010, like many of us here? Unlike 2010, people are not wearing Bafana shirts in the same volume. Yes, you can still see them around on most streets but the apparent apathy has crept in here too. 2010 was a sea of yellow and green; in 2013, the yellow and green is just dotted around. The large quantity of Bafana shirts that I have seen unsold in many sports shops in the city may support this trend. It is not that South Africans are being unpatriotic. Far from it. It is just that they haven't bought into the tournament.

A colleague of mine pointed out that the barometer for all this is the merchandise being sold by informal vendors at major road intersections. During the World Cup, these people across the city sold flags, shirts and vuvuzelas. On match days when the Highveld Lions are playing cricket or the Lions are playing rugby, these vendors will also sell related merchandise (whether 'authentic' or pirated). This time, I have only seen two people sell South African flags. It's as if the tournament isn't happening.

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