Alice-Azania Jarvis: My renewed pride in Bafana Bafana

 

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Outwardly, I'm supporting England in the World Cup. I'm not stupid: I realise that to display anything but the most frenzied jingoism at this crucial moment would not only leave me the odd one out down the pub but, in all likelihood, would render me friendless, boyfriendless and destined to a summer spent indoors, avoiding anything resembling a screen.

Usually, being cut off from the sporting mainstream wouldn't bother me; seemingly the World Cup is different. It permeates everything, from conversations with colleagues to the pop charts. And so, this Saturday, you'll find me parked on the grass of Alexandra Palace in London, sporting red and white and spouting empty phrases about the Gerrard-Lampard axis. Inwardly, though, something else will be happening. A small part of me will be cheering for South Africa.

It's a terrible cliché, isn't it, to claim that Africa gets into your blood? Unfortunately, like most over-used concepts, it's also rather compelling. How else to explain my irrational pull to a nation that was neither my birthplace nor somewhere I visit very often?

But we do, as they say, have history: I moved to South Africa aged 11, when it was just a fledgling democracy. My father, raised on a mine in what was once the Transvaal, had left 30 years earlier in disgust at Apartheid. The excitement of democracy, of having Nelson Mandela as President, had awakened in him a new-found homesickness and so, reluctantly, my mother agreed to give South Africa a chance. Seven years later, motivated by a combination of practicalities, we returned to the UK. I haven't been back since and, indeed, I never felt particularly patriotic during my time there. I was always the English girl, the Pommie, the Odd One Out.

And yet, watching my second home prepare for its place in the international spotlight, it's there: that stirring sense of Africanism, that defensive pride in a country that has strived so hard – immeasurably hard – to make things work one way or another. Sport remains strikingly segregated in South Africa; you need only look at the grossly misrepresentative make-up of their rugby and cricket teams to see that. Football, the conventional wisdom goes, is the game of the majority – which is to say the non-white majority. So it's not surprising that I've been asked, repeatedly, whether Afrikaaners will cheer the Dutch, and English-speaking whites our own, mishap-prone team.

Despite the frequency of these inquiries, from what I can see the answer is a firm no. Perhaps they might have, once. But watching preparations unfold, speaking to friends, of all races, as they get geared up to host the beautiful game, I sense nationwide enthusiasm for the country's "Bafana Bafana". South African flags adorn nearly every vehicle on the road, and voices struggle to be heard above the clamour of the vuvuzela.

Much has happened since that first optimistic election of 1994, and there has been plenty to dampen the ardour of the new nation in which I found myself. Quite rightly, students and activists are planning to demonstrate outside stadiums, erecting mock squatter camps to highlight endemic poverty and to attack the government's record on Aids. I'm glad they are. But in the burst of national unity that the World Cup has initiated, a trace of that vibrant young place is, at least, still visible.

a.jarvis@independent.co.uk

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