If you spent your childhood in South Africa in the ‘90s, chances are rugby was a feature. When I was little, my dad would spend hours teaching me and my sister how to tackle, and playing touch rugby with us in the garden. The images of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final burnt themselves indelibly on my nine-year-old memory. A decade and a half later I stood watching the Bulls play in Soweto, with a feeling of pride in how far we’ve come.In the dusty patch of open ground below Orlando Stadium, smoke spirals to the sky. It’s not a veld fire, or a group of homeless people trying to keep warm: it’s coming from a braai. The Weber stands next to the open boot of the white 4X4, tended by a white man with braai tongs in his hand. The traditional all-day activity of braaing on the side of the road, beer in hand and friends around, is a common sight in Pretoria on days of rugby matches. And now it has come to Soweto. They came in by the busload, they came in by car. From the suburbs of Pretoria they came, brandishing blue flags and bottles of beer, to see their beloved Bulls do something no other rugby team has done: play a match in Soweto. But this match was about more than rugby. The excitement of everyone was obvious, aware of the momentousness of the occasion. Soweto has probably never seen so many (unarmed) white people in its streets before, and many Pretorianers would likely never have imagined being in a township after dark – voluntarily. It was nation-building in action. The smell of boerewors and braaivleis drifted tantalisingly on the air as Rooi Rok Bokkie blasted from the speakers in the beer garden. People dressed in blue from head to toe posed for pictures at the gates to the stadium. “Dis stunning hierso, bliksem,” commented one spectator, gazing up at the stadium. Another one remarked wisely, “Kyk, hierdie’s geskiedenis op die maak.”
The Loftus faithful displayed an unaccustomed sense of disorientation: “Ramp 1? Waar’s dit?” one muttered, examining his ticket closely.Many of the spectators, black and white, who were not in blue, were sporting yellow Bafana Bafana shirts instead. The jerseys were also on sale at the Bulls merchandise stall. Vuvuzelas, the traditional weapon of the soccer fan, were everywhere, and were used to great effect during the match. Every time the Crusaders’ flyhalf, Dan Carter, stepped up to take a kick, the roar of the crowd and the blasts of the vuvuzelas rose to a deafening volume – the stadium vibrating from the noise. Carter ended up missing more kicks than he got through. After the match, many people stayed in the beer garden to watch the Stormers vs Waratahs match on big screen, or began the celebrations in the shebeens near the stadium. One person commented that as he left the area, all he could see were blue helmets with horns, partying in the shebeens. One suspects the ridiculously low-priced quarts may have had something to do with this. Of course, this single rugby match does not constitute a magical panacea for all our country’s ills. But with all the challenges we face on a daily basis, something that brings us together and makes us celebrate our sameness despite our differences, can only be a positive thing.
*A version of this piece originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian of May 28, 2010 to June 3, 2010
** I received the pictures as part of an email. Don’t be mad if they’re yours, please.