Time for a new game?

Observations on South Africa

An old friend of ours went to a funeral in the South African town of Mafikeng on Sunday. Probably better known to British readers as Mafeking, after the siege in the Anglo-Boer War, it is a dusty, poor and almost entirely black town. It is also one of the many in South Africa where I would have been confident that South Africa's Rugby World Cup victory would go all but unremarked. After all, rugby was one of the spiritual props of Afrikanerdom under apartheid, and the sport remains dogged by accusations of racism.

And yet, on Sunday morning, 12 hours or so after the Springboks beat England, many of the all-black congregation at the funeral were wearing T-shirts in the Springboks' distinctive green and gold colours. "And on Saturday night we couldn't sleep," my friend says. "There was so much shouting, and singing, and car horns tooting. Everyone was so happy."

Counter-intuitive anecdotes such as this have been buzzing on the airwaves of South Africa's talk-radio stations ever since the end of the game. Presenters have seized on them as echoes of that extraordinary spirit in 1995, the last time the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup, after Nelson Mandela outdid even his own reconciliatory wizardry by donning a Springbok jersey and endorsing the game of his old oppressors.

The ruling African National Congress, too, has belatedly tried to get in on the act, issuing a flurry of gushing statements before and after the game. Even the ANC Youth League, best known for its fire-and-brimstone radicalism, called on the nation to remember the vibe of 1995 and stand behind "Die Bokke".

What is one to make of this? Struck by the news from Mafikeng, I did briefly suspend my cynicism about race relations in the "Rainbow Nation", but not for long.

It was always daft to suppose a victory for the Boks could rekindle the ethos of 1995. That was one year after the end of white rule; the afterglow of the successful transition to democracy was still flickering, and all South Africa and the world needed was the sight of the beaming Mandela to go weak at the knees over South Africa's ability to "break the mould". I put that in quote marks because I was one of the many correspondents in South Africa at the time, scattering the phrase liberally as we revelled in the euphoria. It did help to make Afrikaners feel part of the "new" South Africa and even held out the hope of a united country. But increasingly it is clear it said more about Mandela and the world's adoration of him than it did about South Africa's race relations - or, indeed, about its future.

To understand what the 2007 Rugby World Cup really tells us about South Africa, it is worth lingering on the image of Mandela's successor, President Thabo Mbeki, as he was held aloft by the cheering Boks on Saturday night. Two things stand out: the number of black faces among the Boks - two (one more than in 1995) - and Mbeki's discomfort.

The first is a reminder of how white and black South Africans still largely inhabit separate worlds. This seems about to change in rugby. The deputy minister of home affairs, Malusi Gigaba, made clear to parliament before the final that the Springboks would have to become less white. "They will come back to a nation that is unwavering in its demand for transformation," he said. "We cannot relent until the Springboks team is representative."

But, with the exception of the metropolitan elite in Johannesburg, the situation in South Africa's suburbs is, if anything, heading in the other direction. The racial divide often appears more entrenched now than in 1995. Back then, many whites made gestures of reaching out to the new nation and even to their black countrymen, all the while suggesting that they, of course, had always been against apartheid. Now a combination of terrible crime, affirmative action and residual prejudice has led most to retreat into their shells, some even muttering that they are the new victims.

Then there is the Mbeki factor. To be uneasy about being hoisted aloft by burly rugby players is only natural, and the fact that he has long disdained political theatrics is arguably a badge of pride.

But many in the ANC are now concluding South Africa badly needs a leader with a lighter touch.

When he took over in 1999, I believed there was a strong argument that South Africa needed a dose of his technocratic style after the glorious fuzziness of five years of Mandela. This was the man who would make the economy hum and who would push forward the politics of transformation that would in the long run ensure South Africa's political stability.

He has done both those things, but as he marks his 13th year at the centre of power - he was Mandela's de facto prime minister for five years - many, even in the ANC, fret that it is time for a change. With the party at its most divided since the end of apartheid, two senior party figures have in recent days confided in me their concern over Mbeki's autocratic moves.

Now several are steeling themselves - without much hope - to advise him not to run again for the party leadership in December.

If white people could draw a lesson from my Mafikeng tale and embrace football (traditionally the game of black South Africans) and if the next president could be more ebullient, then the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa could yet lead to a rerun of 1995's happy scenes.

But for the time being, we should not read too much into the images of dancing Springbok fans. It was just a game. A far more telling insight into South Africa came shortly before the game at a funeral of an ANC stalwart. It erupted into a fist fight between supporters and opponents of Mbeki.

Alec Russell is Johannesburg bureau chief of the Financial Times