Are patriotic fervour and xenophobia two sides of same coin?

The World Cup has created an extraordinary opportunity for seeing South African patriotism at its best — but it has also shown an ugly side that may yet cancel out any improvements in our international reputation.

Who can forget the flags that sprouted on cars and homes around the country in the weeks leading up to the kick-off? Traffic became a constant national parade.

Patriotic fervour hit its peak just before the opening game against Mexico, and that Friday the entire country seemed to grind to a joyous, vuzuzela-fuelled halt.

Around lunchtime, the centre of Johannesburg gridlocked as people streamed to their chosen viewing spot: home, fanpark or — for the lucky ones — Soccer City itself.

It was an unforgettably loud and cheerful moment. For the first time in many years it felt like South Africa was one nation, in spite of everything.

And the media were in the thick of things. Even the ordinarily staid Business Day presented its masthead in Bafana Bafana colours on the day of the opening. Radio 702 went even further, bringing fans in their tens of thousands on to the street in a demonstration of support for the national team.

The spirit of unity extended to the rest of the continent, and South African have tended to support African teams against all comers. I was in the stands for the Ghana vs Serbia game, and it was very clear that aside from a scattering of Serbia-supporters, Loftus Versfeld backed the Black Stars.

Bafana Bafana’s draw against Mexico sustained the national mood, but the dramatic loss against Uruguay caused severe damage. Suddenly, the team went from being heroes to losers. They were, quite simply, punished for disappointing our overblown hopes.

Everybody had something to say. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira came in for a roasting, and I heard some callers on radio focus on the fact that he was a foreigner. Some wanted him simply fired, others called for a South African coach — a recurring theme in the discussion about the national team. And there were some who said the coach had deliberately sabotaged the team because he is a foreigner.

There it was, the xenophobia that is the dark underside of South African patriotism.

The final performance against France was not good enough to qualify for the next round, but at least it salvaged enough national pride to mute the anti-foreigner sentiment.

But for how long?

Already, there has been a flurry of fearful reports that an upsurge of attacks on foreigners can be expected after the Fifa caravan has left our shores. The word, by the way, is “upsurge” — because such attacks are part of our daily reality. They have become as much a part of the South African way of life as braaivleis or chiskop.

The whole idea of people sitting together planning attacks for a time after the World Cup boggles the mind: are we to imagine a shadowy Committee of Xenophobes that hates foreigners but does not want to harm the tourism industry?

It is extraordinary that South Africans can walk down the street one moment, joyously waving the flags of countries such as Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon, and be plotting against the nationals of those countries the next.

Should one seek to explain the contradiction by arguing that these are different kinds of South Africans? Perhaps those attending the games have enough money not to feel threatened by foreigners. In that view, xenophobia is the preserve of the poor.

This neat distinction does not hold water. Recent research by the Gauteng City Region Observatory made the shocking finding that 69% of residents have xenophobic attitudes, and that there are no significant differences between the various race, class and other groupings.

It is true that attacks on foreigners are largely concentrated in poorer areas: in many ways, they are related to service-delivery protests. They are said to emerge from competition for resources. Perhaps we love visitors, but can’t abide immigrants.

I fear that xenophobia and the extraordinary outpouring of patriotic fervour marking the World Cup are two sides of the same coin. Heaven knows, we can use a greater sense of national unity and purpose, but we should not need to define it against outside enemies.

It was understandable that the media were swept up by the national mood, and it would have been churlish to stand aside. Now that the peaks of patriotism are behind us though, journalists need to get their feet back on the ground. Our best contribution to the country’s welfare is to report with a sense of critical distance.

Xenophobic attacks may claim our attention sooner than we would like. It may be time to look past the vuvuzelas and flags, and remember that the fundamental issues facing the country have not disappeared.

This column was originally published in the Mail & Guardian on July 5, 2010.

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