Sport in South Africa. An overview of its cultural significance

Essay, 2020

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The cultural significance of Sport in South Africa

Modul: Difference in Literature and Culture (04-ANG- 2104)

Xenophobia is a prevailing issue for South Africa’s society. The enrooted cultural legacy of apartheid gave, among others, way to this fact. The era’s systematic segregation of races reinforced “secondary citizen status for nonwhites.” (Lapchick 155) Additionally, the regime legitimized the domination of whiteness. In fact, these aspects were mirrored in and transferred through the public institution of sport. Arguably, sport can be perceived as one of the most significant supporters of the regime, but also as a public communicator for hope, change and crucial partaker to overthrow this politic. Nowadays, sport vouches for South Africa’s reformed identity, the democratic Rainbow Nation. These developments are perceivable through the ongoing change of the characteristics of sport throughout the era of apartheid, to its end, and to contemporary events.

The institution of sport offers a set of features for the development of a society. For once, Jarvie argues that sport supports the dominant ideology of a culture (5), while it reproduces features of the society and supports its philosophy. All the same, sport functions as a “societal icon” (Rees 27). In other words, it portrays how a community works by utilizing invented traditions, which symbolize the society itself. Thus, for instance, sport mimics the hierarchies of a culture. Lastly, sport is a political and diplomatic weapon (Keech 111). For instance, it portrays a community’s features and issues through international competition. Therefore, the public institution of Sport functions as an international communicator of itself and can raise awareness of, for instance, a political issue. Consequently, all these features posse essential social value. These are applied throughout the development of sport in South Africa and, subsequently, support the country in its shift from the nation of apartheid to the democratic Rainbow Nation.

The ability of sport to have a substantial impact on South Africa’s society is attainable because of the country’s special relationship towards it. As Lapchick argues (157), sport in South Africa has the status of a national religion. The nation is sports-minded and frequently represented as sports mad. Furthermore, the public institution is the guardian of the national character. It emphasizes essential values, features, and characteristics of the people.

For and foremost, two features aggregate this relationship. Firstly, Grill argues (9 2:24) that the countries environmental circumstances favour outdoor activities. As a result, the mild sunny climate and the wideness of the land asks for athletic engagement. Moreover, the colonial heritage of the country influences the sports-culture of South Africa at least just as significant. Nowadays, this legacy is perceivable in the favourite kinds of sport in South Africa, which are: Football, Rugby, Cricket, Tennis and Golf. Incidentally, all these kinds possess a colonial tradition, as they were introduced into the country by the colonisers.

Accordingly, these two features collaborate to construct the nation’s heightened social value of sport.

For South Africa’s political and cultural development are specifically important Football and Rugby. These symbolize not only the national sports nowadays, but also mirror essential political and cultural developments. In fact, they mimicked the system of apartheid, specifically the segregation of races. In this era, Rugby was not merely the most important sport, but as well a symbol for the country’s racist ideology, the dominance of white over black. Perceived as the elitist sphere (Nauright 198), the sport functioned as representative of the white identity, whereas blacks saw it as their exclusion as others. By communicating these characteristics to the public, Rugby established itself as a central instrument for apartheid South African power structures (17). In contrast, the symbolism of Football. In the apartheid era, Football was perceived as the proletarian sport, accordingly the favorite sport of the black community. (Grill 9 3:15) It has been and still is closely connected to the idea of township culture and represents self-confidence of people of colour. Therefore, it is essential for the communication between the different communities of South Africa and the representation of values. Alongside, the apartheid regime accepted Footballs importance for the black community and abused its status. In fact, the government exploited the sports significance to teach disciplines (Grill 3 5:15) and blind people of political developments (Grill 4 7:45).

However, the role and symbolic of these sports change throughout South Africa’s development. Initially, sport reflects directly the political system of apartheid and maintains “the gap between white and non-white cultures.” (Jarvie 80) The institution maintains social control and hinders revolution. Furthermore, South Africa’s government uses international competition to legitimize apartheid (Rees 23). Countries competing with South Africa are perceived as accepting the political system of apartheid, which is then not only communicated to the international- but also to the national sphere. Initially succeeding with this portrayal, a changing attitude is detectable throughout the 1970s onwards. The installation of the Sports Boycott against South Africa renders the public institution to a crucial symbol for protest and hope (Ramsamy 61-64). International demonstration against racial segregation lead to the complete isolation of South Africa’s sport competition, while it communicated the issue of apartheid around the world and, more crucially, emphasized its rejection globally and nationally. This isolation culminates into the beginning of “multiracial sport” (Lapchick 165) talks. Consequently, the society of South Africa starts to open, because people of colour are, to some extent, allowed to represent the country in various sports. This development is one of the first process that collaborate to eventually remove the regime of apartheid. Accordingly, after the surmounting of apartheid by 1994, the institution of sport is assessed with a new symbolism. Sport functions forthwith to display detectable change (Rees 28). Specifically, Rugby receives the opportunity to utilize this function and to supply the public of South Africa with the evidence for the end of its former racist regime. The Rugby World Cup 1995, detained for the first time in South Africa, musters all of South Africa together. Black and white sit conjointly in a stadium, celebrate extensively in the streets, possess a belonging community sense - unimaginative a couple of years ago. However, this signifies only one, although crucial step of an ongoing process. Undoubtedly, the world cup conjures features that remind South Africa of its apartheid heritage. First, the national Rugby team, the Springbok team, has only one black player, thus a marginal representation of the major community of South Africa. Furthermore, the long-lasting legacy of the sport, the symbol for whiteness, is deeply enrooted, therefore limiting the cups fans to mostly the white community. In short, the cup describes the development of sport, from the symbol and supporter of the apartheid regime to the symbol for protest and consequently change itself. However, the public institution additionally admits the recognition of to be developed ongoing issues.

The recent sport events of South Africa describe its reformed identity, nonetheless, portray rebounding and new issues. Particularly, the Football world cup 2010 and the Rugby world cup 2019 can be perceived as lenses that illustrate the crucial developments of the country and sports contribution to these processes.

The Football world cup 2010 in South Africa, the next milestone of the sports history of the country, was in an economic sense a drastic and in nation building regards mostly a failure, however a success story for South Africa’s sport legacy and its international identity. To begin with, the world cup gave the country the opportunity to display its reformed character, the democratic Rainbow Nation (Catsam 1). Once again, the majority of South Africa’s public were celebrating as a community a mass sports event and communicated this rejoice of and through Football on an international scale. Thereby, South Africa emphasized its new identity of equality, diversity and democracy, while stressing the societies surmounting ofits apartheid history and social injustice. On a national basis the cup was perceived as a magical formula (Grill 1 6:00). Specifically, the black community was thrilled about the opportunity to host the football cup in their country. As a result, immense expectations have been attached onto the cup. These were concerned with the hope for economic growth and nation building. Economically, South Africa was expecting to gain a financial impetus through the increased tourism caused by the world cup and the building of infrastructure. However, the country underestimated the costs necessary to establish the infrastructure for the world cup. Indeed, the expenses of the construction of one stadium surmounted to more than what the country expected to pay for all of them (Tayob 728). Furthermore, the prospect of the gain through tourism has been exaggerated. The world cup contributed to only 4% of tourisms entire earnings for the whole of2010 (Tayob 727). Consequently, lots of public resources were invested in exchange for the private gain of selected few (Tayob 717). Therefore, the “Trickle down” (Grill 1 7:30), the profits gained by the most impoverished of the country, was almost non-existent. Instead, critics of the cup argue that the money spend on the world cup could have and should have been used to build shelter for “3 million homeless” (Tayob 735). Furthermore, the hopes for nation building, to specifically overcome South Africa’s ongoing issues of xenophobia, was likewise troublesome. The government tried to surmount these issues by emphasizing the national identity and the community sense of the country. Notably, to cause these processes, nation building campaigns were introduced, as for instance the distribution of 47 million South African flags throughout the country (Tayob 726). Nevertheless, provided that the xenophobia isjust as much present after the cup as it was beforehand (Larlham 44), the effect of these campaigns was restricted to a temporary suppression of the issues.

Consequently, the mega event offered an economical growth impetus but nothing sustainable (Grill 1 8:10). Additionally, for a moment, it brought the country together but could not eradicate the ongoing issue of xenophobia. However, the communication ability of sport has anew influenced South Africa’s appearance, because the football world cup successfully transmitted, internationally and nationally, the countries reformed identity. This establishment offers long-term economic and social development. Economically, the new image prospects an increasing amount of tourism. Furthermore, as Larlham argues, South Africa needs “to remember how they were toward each other during the four weeks” (44) of the World Cup. Therefore, the country could have the ability to overcome their ongoing social issues by remembering the legacy of the cup, in which South Africa portrayed its conjoint enjoyment of football throughout the event and bridged their discrimination obstacles.

The Rugby world cup 2019, which was not situated in South Africa, but which the country won, is evidence for the sports ongoing reprocessing of the apartheid legacy and, likewise, the adaption of the new mood of the country. Simultaneously, these developments are communicated to the society of South Africa. Just after the apartheid era, the Springboks, the national team, was, by admitting only one black player into their team, hardly representing the black community of South Africa. However, throughout time Rugby developed to be a central representative for the coloured community, as it received its first non-white coach in 2008 (Catsam 4) and its first black captain and seven further black players up until today (Burke). As a result, sport is rendered to the communicator of diversity, the contemporary philosophy of South Africa. Kolisi, the first black captain of the springbok team, is the decisive element for this transmission. He is not only a representative for diversity but also impersonates a South African sports showcase icon. Growing up poor and in dire circumstances, he, nonetheless reached through luck and skill the levied status that he possesses today (Burke). As a matter of fact, Kolisi’s circumstances communicate the indifference of colour and social status, in consideration of what one can accomplish, thus he transfers the achieved social equality of South Africa. However, the enrooted legacy of apartheid in Rugby continues to be detectable. Immediately before the world cup the team dealt with a case of alleged racism against the captain by a teammate (Burke). Hence, the reprocessing of the detectable racist history of South Africa needs to be continued in sports and, subsequently, the overall society. In summary, even though Rugby’s portrayal of “evidence for ongoing transformation” (Burke) is ultimately crucial for the public’s understanding of its progressing cultural identity, it is also a sign for its continuing flaws.

To conclude, sport in South Africa publicly communicates change, development and hope. Comparatively, the social institution signifies abuse and ignorance. Focusing initially on the positive aspects, most significantly, sport functions as the detectable communicator of change (Cros 4). For instance, by achieving an increasing amount of people of colour in sophisticated teams, the public institution portrays the society’s embedded diversity. Furthermore, sport allows South Africa to continuously reprocess its legacy. For instance, this is perceivable through the Springbok team that overturned it’s symbolic of racism to diversity. Lastly, sport transmits the attained social equality, disregarding differences of colour or class, which is, for example, recognizable through the development of the springbok captain Kolisi. On the contrary, sport introduces financial exploitation of a society. Grand events, as for instance the football world cup 2010 are mainly conducted by major corporations to acquire profits. Therefore, social issues of a nation are disregarded in favor of the production of“a marketable event” (Tayob 734). Equally important, sport performances reproduce political and cultural ideologies, thus generate prejudiced perspectives. Finally, media abuses sport to represent the most profitable perspective instead of a perspective that is solely productive for the development of a society. Therefore, created biases produce misleading information and over represent perspectives of sports that blinds off from real issues. Nevertheless, the institution of sport supported and portrays South Africa’s immense cultural shift from the racist regime of apartheid to the democratic country of the Rainbow Nation. As a detector of change, the public can perceive through this lens “the distance the country has traveled” (Catsam 2) and furthermore detect and treat the ongoing issues of its society.

Works Cited

Jarvie, Grant. Class, Race and Sport in South Africa's Political Economy. London [u.a.]: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.

Rees, C. Roger. "RACE AND SPORT IN GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE. LESSONS FROM POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA". Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 20.1 (1996): 22­32.

Keech, Marc, and Barrie Houlihan. "Sport and the End of Apartheid". The Round Table, 88.349 (1999): 109-121.

Lapchick, Richard E. “South Africa: Sport and Apartheid Politics.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 445, 1979, pp. 155-165. JSTOR, Accessed 19 June 2020.

Catsam, Derek Charles. “The Death of Doubt? Sport, Race, and Nationalism in the New South Africa.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 11, no. 2, 2010, pp. 7-13. JSTOR, Accessed 19 June 2020.

Ramsamy, Sam. Apartheid: The Real Hurdle; Sport in South Africa and the International Boycott. London: International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1982.

Tayob, Shaheed. “The 2010 World Cup in South Africa: A Millennial Capitalist Moment.” Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, 2012, pp. 717-736., 23267037. Accessed 19 June 2020.

Burke, Jason. South Africans pin hopes on rugby win to lift gloom of troubled country. The Guardian. rugby-win-to-lift-gloom-of-troubled-country. Accessed 19 June 2020.

Grill, Bartholomaus. Laduuuuuma!: Wie Der FuBball Afrika Verzaubert.l. Aufl. Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 2009.

Cros, Bernard. "Managing Racial Diversity: Positional Segregation in South African Rugby Union in thePost-apartheidEra". CadernosDeEstudos Africanos,.26(2013): 153-176.


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Sport in South Africa. An overview of its cultural significance
Universität Leipzig  (Anglistik)
Literaturwissenschaft: South Africa Today: Diversity in Literature and Culture
ISBN (eBook)
South Africa, Sport, Culture
Arbeit zitieren
Lucas Meyer (Autor:in), 2020, Sport in South Africa. An overview of its cultural significance, München, GRIN Verlag,


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