A huge global audience as well as almost every member of the local population will watch a month long festival of world soccer that began today at 3pm, local time in Johannesburg, South Africa.
South Africa is not a newcomer to world sports – in fact it has hosted a number of significant tournaments including the Rugby, Athletics and Cricket world cups and African Nations Soccer in the past 20 years. But Soccer on a world scale is seen as particularly significant because it was the sport of the majority of Black South Africans that was often prohibited by the government during the years of Apartheid.
Apartheid is the term commonly used to describe the legal segregation and mistreatment of black citizens by the white minorities for more than 45 years. The country’s population was divided by color and mixing of any kind was prohibited. Many who spoke out against the policy were imprisoned, ironically in a prison only a short way from the Johannesburg stadium where the opening ceremony was held. Prisoners formed their own soccer league and played each Saturday after a week of hard labor.
Many soccer stadiums were locked shut when games were due to take place, because soccer was viewed as a sport for ‘Native Africans’. In one famous incident in 1963, more than 15000 people scaled the fences of the Natalspruit stadium with a set of goal posts (to replace the ones the authorities had removed). Later, a mixed race team allowed by the government to play against an Argentinian national side, forgot their differences and embraced after a 5-0 victory over the visitors. The hero was Jomo Sono who scored three goals.
Soccer matches later became places for legal gatherings, and focal points to rally the anti-apartheid movement. They were also places where tribal leaders could meet and conspire in the anonymity of the crowd.
Today, the arrival of the World Cup in this country, with is purpose built, super modern stadia, a home team of players with experience from around the world, and the full support of a nation behind them, is symbolic of how South Africa has managed to leave its darkest days behind and give hope to those suffering oppression, wherever they are in the world.
To read more about Soccer and Apartheid, read More than Just a Game written by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close available here.