The year is 1995. Nelson Mandela dons the Springbok jersey and cap, and enters the Ellis Park Stadium to timid claps. On that day – June 24th – exactly 20 years ago today, the South African team went on to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. During the post-match interview, Francois Pienaar, Springbok’s Captain, was asked about the large support the team received on that day – 65,000 South African supporters in the stadium – and his answer summed up Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation project: “We didn’t have 65,000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans”. Once regarded as a symbol of apartheid, Mandela used rugby as a unifying tool to bring together two conflicting worlds separated by a violent system of racial segregation that lasted two centuries. Behind the Springbok’s victory was Mandela’s unshakeable faith in a South Africa in which all of its citizens, regardless of race and religion, live together in harmony. As a sports enthusiast himself and a former boxer, Mandela strongly believed in the healing powers of sports and thought it had “the power to unite people in a way that little else does [and] can create hope where once there was only despair”.
Psychological studies have long associated sports as a tool of socialization conducive to national pride and unity. The implicit trust Black South Africans had in their new president meant that Mandela’s public gestures of support for the Springboks were sufficient to induce a gradual change in general attitudes towards the national rugby team. It has also been established that fandom is rooted in the desire to be a part of the winning environment created by sports teams. In the new post-apartheid South Africa, the unprecedented support for the national rugby team by the Black majority was a symbolic bridging of the gap that had historically marginalized the black majority and robbed them of a sense of belonging to their nation.
The potential benefits of sports for the mental, physical and emotional health of disadvantaged community members and youths has yet to be fully exploited. The benefits accrued by playing sports can propel the development of important human values such as participation and respect for rules and other team members, fairplay, self-confidence and personal discipline. However, the promotion of sports in Africa as an economic resource and tool for national development has largely eluded us. The national financial weakness – or lack of interest in the promotion of sports – on the part of African states prevents adequate investment in infrastructure, human resources, and structural development needed to retain talented players. The unequal bargaining power of local African teams when faced with foreign recruiters puts wealthy European clubs in a position to hire players at a much lower purchase price than the average European recruiting price. It is important to make African local teams more appealing to local players and develop the necessary resources to give young talented sportsmen and women the option of developing their potential at home.
From Sekou Toure’s Guinea to Mobutu’s Zaire, as well as in Nkrumah’s Ghana, Africa’s post-independence leaders understood the power of sports and used it, albeit for the wrong reasons sometimes. In fact, membership to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) – the first pan African organization set up in 1957 – meant, at the time, existing as an independent nation. In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah played an important role in developing the country’s national football team – the Black Stars – and was at the forefront of the movement to increase Africa’s presence on the international football scene. For instance, in 1966, he organized a boycott of the World Cup after FIFA only allowed one African team to participate in the competition. Football was seen as key to developing a sense of “Ghanaianness that […] would transcend all divisions” but also a sense of Africanness, an idea that was perfectly in line with his quest for African unity. By propelling Ghanaian football on the international scene, Nkrumah wanted to instill confidence in his people. He believed that football had the ability to create a common identity and could mobilize an entire country around common socio-economic objectives. Sporting victories, he thought, could develop a sense of pride in one’s nation.
In 1963, just six years after gaining independence, Ghana hosted and won the African Cup of Nations. The Black Stars also won the competition in 1965, in Tunisia. Despite some of Nkrumah’s successes in pushing for strong nation-building and promoting pan-Africanism through football, his use of the game gradually reflected his autocratic style and led to the boycott of the Ghanaian domestic league by several clubs which eventually led to the League’s collapse. Still, in spite of this, Nkrumah gave us a glimpse of how sports could effectively be used for nation-building purposes.
In Guinea, Sekou Toure was often seen entering the stadium in his presidential car but only a few minutes before the end of the games and only if his favorite team, Hafia de Conakry, was winning. The cheers and chants that welcomed him contrasted with the public humiliations the team would endure after losing a game; losses he equated to “betraying the revolution” and “causing national mourning”. Sekou Toure understood the power of football and how it could be used as a vehicle for his socialist and nationalistic views. He understood the popularity of the game but, unlike Nkrumah, he used it as propaganda to reinforce his personality cult.
Today, football remains intrinsically linked to politics. On the continent, it is not uncommon for a Head of State to choose the captain of the national football team and decide who will play on any given day. This type of meddling prevents the organic establishment and natural chemistry of a team that is brought together solely through talent and hard work. This can negatively impact the dynamic among players and take a toll on the team’s capacity to shine on the international scene. Political interferences also significantly hinder the team’s anchoring role as a symbol for national unity with foundations strong enough to withstand social and political shocks.
Sports cannot solve all the problems countries face when emerging from difficult situations but it can certainly pave the way towards a better tomorrow. For instance, Pele, one of the greatest football players of all time, travelled to Nigeria in the midst of a civil war to play in a football match and both factions involved in the conflict agreed on a 48-hour ceasefire to watch him play.
After a decade or so of instability in Cote d’Ivoire, the country’s’ National team – Les Elephants – won this year’s African Cup of Nations (CAN) and were welcomed by thousands of supporters waving the orange, white and green flags in the streets of Abidjan. The warm welcome they received yet again demonstrated the power and ability of sports to unite citizens from all strata of Ivorian society and from different political affiliations.
It is important to acknowledge that sports can both unite and divide people, however, if it is to be used as a nation-building tool, it first has to remain independent of political interests. The promotion of sports through inter-school competitions and at grassroots levels will help foster national appreciation for sports and develop young talent.
Sports, when used in the positive manner exemplified by Mandela, can restore unity and hope in previously divided and conflict ridden countries.