Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Trapped by race

For the first time in ten years, the South African national football team (Bafana Bafana) progressed beyond the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations. Siyabonga Sangweni’s late strike secured a 2-2 draw against Morocco and first place in Group A. Cape Verde’s shock second place has to be the surprise of the tournament, although knocking out Cameroon in qualifying may have suggested that they weren’t going to be pushovers.

Yet what interests me is how Bafana Bafana have been reported in the papers, especially in the light of their 2-0 victory over Angola. The following morning, much praise was heaped on man-of-the-match midfielder Dean Furman. The Oldham Athletic captain received plaudits from critics and supporters alike for his domination in the centre of the park, nullifying most of Angola’s attacking play. While this was clearly a great personal achievement for Furman, the papers picked up on something that Furman could not help; he is white.

Is the most important thing about Furman is that he's white?

The Sowetan, a daily aimed predominantly at township readers, described Furman as a token mlungu (umlungu is zulu for white person), mentioning that he is one of two white players in the squad, the other being goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands. This begins to hint at just how important race and racial identity still is in post-apartheid South Africa. As a researcher on the social significance of football in the country and having attended many local football matches, I was often the token mlungu in the stadium. I was regularly a novelty and spectators would ask to have their photo taken with me, just because I was white. In Johannesburg, white soccer fans at domestic matches are rare (Bidvest Wits games are the exception) and white first-team players similarly so. Furman and Sandiland’s presence in the Bafana squad have similarly been constructed in the press as unusual, and therefore newsworthy.

John Robbie’s column in the Saturday Star went further:

There have been high profile incidents of rugby and cricket struggling to adhere to racial transformation policies post-apartheid. The Rugby World Cup winning team of 2007 had only two players were not white, despite the fact that it was thirteen years since the end of apartheid. Cricket too has had its scandals surrounding racial quotas; the spat between bowler Makhaya Ntini and now former coach Mickey Arthur springs to mind. Inversely, Bafana Bafana hasn’t had such a problem. The likes of Neil Tovey, Mark Fish, Matthew Booth, and now Dean Furman have shown that an inverse transformation policy hasn’t been necessary. I think that Bafana reflects the national demographic much closer than the Springboks (rugby) or the Proteas (cricket) ever have although in recent years, Bafana squads have been short on white players.

Still, behind the increasing hype/ decreasing apathy surrounding Bafana during this tournament, the attitude that if the Springboks and Proteas are subject to transformation policies, Bafana should be forced to field more white players still exists in some quarters. Alternatively, the conspiracy is that Bafana is already subject to a quota that keeps white players out. Robbie is right to refute such notions; the football team is not subject to a quota system.

What Furman unwittingly highlights is a key contradiction in South African life; race is both important and not at the same time. He is one of a squad of players regardless of race, wearing the Bafana jersey, singing the national anthem and representing the country. However, the sharp focus on his whiteness reveals the continued minefield of race and identity in South Africa.

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