Jakobus De Vries tooted awkwardly on his vuvuzela, the plastic trumpet synonymous with South African football, as the life-long rugby fan cheered at his first-ever soccer match during the Confederations Cup.
“I have never been to any football match, I am a confirmed rugby man. But I thought this was a good opportunity to familiarise myself with football before the World Cup next year,” he said.
The cattle farmer and his family were among the unusually large white crowds cheering as Bafana Bafana defeated New Zealand in their first Confed win in Rustenburg, a town best known for its nearby platinum mines and the Vegas-style Sun City resort.
“I like the atmosphere here, it is festive and vibrant. The fans are just amazing, this is a lekker (nice) place to be,” said De Vries.
Sport, like the rest of South African life, was strictly segregated under the apartheid government. De Vries, like any white person, would have been prohibited by law to be amongst people of a different race, even in a stadium.
Back then rugby and cricket were sports for the white minority, while football was a black man’s game — denied access to funding and facilities to develop the game. It’s a legacy that is taking a long time to overcome.
South Africa’s readmission into the international sporting arena in 1992, following the fall of apartheid laws, marked the beginning of a slow process of breaking down the racial boundaries.
That effort became symbolised in the 1995 rugby World Cup victory by the Springboks, which saw a wave of mixed race support for the team — an image emblazoned as Nelson Mandela lifted the trophy on the field.
Similar scenes played out during the Springboks second World Cup victory in France, but at domestic league football matches, white fans remain conspicuously absent.
But since the beginning of the Confed Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal, white fans have turned out in numbers to support Bafana Bafana, dressing in national colours and waving the flag despite the team’s hot-and-cold play.
Retired former Bafana captain and top goal scorer, Shaun Bartlett believes that support for football already goes beyond the racial lines drawn by apartheid.
“Football transcends race, it is for everyone. Sport, not just only football, is unifying, especially in our country,” said the former FC Zurich player, who is mixed race.
“If you look at our yesteryear football heroes, they are from different races, black and white,” he added
Bartlett defended the national side’s mixed results in friendlies leading up to the tournament, which had drawn concern that South Africans wouldn’t rally behind a team with a lacklustre record.
“They are a young squad, but they are capable,” he said. “They must go out there and restore their dignity. They have the support of the entire country.”
Bafana Bafana played to a goal-less draw with Iraq in the opening game of the tournament — casting doubt on the host nation’s chances of advancing to later stages of the games.
Poor crowd attendance at Bafana’s games has been a major concern for the local World Cup organising committee, prompting corporations to purchase bulk tickets to give to the poor.
For Wednesday’s game, FIFA said Kgosi Leruo, traditional king of the Bafokeng people, purchased 10,000 tickets that he gave away for free to help fill seats of the newly renovated stadium.
Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the local organising committee, said he believes the World Cup will prove an even stronger force for bringing the nation together behind the team.
“South Africans of all races love football, we have witnessed that in the games we played,” Jordaan said. “If you haven’t seen enough of it, wait until 2010.”
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