More than the few: on English football and South African xenophobia

The latest outburst of xenophobic violence in South Africa has, as you might expected, provoked comment and soul-searching. it’s distressing to watch the colours of the rainbow nation fragment. This time around other African governments have been drawn to comment, which has in its turn provoked a belated act of leadership from President Zuma. In his impassioned response to a Mozambican writerr’s criticisms of the incidents, Zuma argued that the detestable actions of the wrongdoers were the action of a ‘few’, of a minority.

This sparked a memory for me. A memory of the darkest days of English football. Allow me to explain (even if you despise football, please bear with me; I think this is important). In the 1980s, and into the 90s, English football experienced a period of self-recrimination and examination in the wake of a spate of football-related violence (much of this could also be said to be true of the sport in other nations, but I want to turn the lens on that closest to me). The strictures that resulted from this were severe: expulsion, for a time, of English clubs from the highest level of international club football, a series of changes to the way crowds were policed and legislated. We could also argue that it resulted in the structural changes to the game that resulted in the multi-millionaire culture of today’s Premier League, but let’s not go there for now. As the game’s public image sank, there was a frequent refrain from inside the game. It’s only a few fans

Using comparative statistics, that’s true. In a stadium of 40,000, only a minority would be real trouble makers. Most were indeed there to see the game. It’s true; but doesn’t make the dead and injured any less dead and injured. Various things needed to be done – some of the legislation (though perhaps not all) was appropriate and necessary. In addition to this, there needed to be invitations from those in football to a different way of following the sport; witness, for example, before the 1989 league title decider between Liverpool and Arsenal, the Arsenal players presenting wreathes of flowers in memory of deceased Liverpool fans. This two-pronged approach was necessary; but it missed a third prong, one which still lies (largely) unaddressed. The third prong revolves around the inherent problem of something that gives English football such a unique and special identity.

English football has an almost unique culture of fans travelling to support their team, and doing so with a special kind of noise, colour and passion. Globally there are few sporting events with the vibrant appeal of an English football derby (local rivalry); fixtures like Manchester United v Liverpool and Arsenal v Tottenham (Spurs) have an atmosphere you really have to experience to believe. This is because of the inherent tribalism in English football; these rivalries go back over a century, drawing fuel from sources wider than sport, into the very fabric of the communities which they represent. As a life-long Arsenal fan living on the other side of the world, the morning of a game with Tottenham, I wake up with a feeling in my stomach best described as adrenalised dread. This is what makes it special; it’s also what makes it dangerous. Fair warning: the contents of the next paragraph may offend.

When Tottenham player Sol Campbell moved to Arsenal, it provoked a storm of protest and anger. The song that some Tottenham fans sung at him ran thus (to the tune of Lord of The Dance): “Sol, Sol, wherever you may be/You’re on the verge of lunacy/And we don’t give a fuck when you’re hanging from a tree/Judas cunt with HIV”. Count yourself blessed if you don’t understand all the mental-health, racist and homophobic references in there. Arsenal fans were not blameless. A favourite response was the massed sound of air escaping between teeth aimed towards Tottenham fans. Tottenham has a strong base of support amongst North London’s Jewish community; the sound imitates gas in the Nazi death camps. 

Yes, it was only a few fans who engaged like this. But this hatred, which I’ve seen contorted onto the faces of desperately ordinary people, could only grow in the soil of the tribalism and rivalries at the heart of English football. Not every football fan was guilty; but we are all responsible for creating the environment in which it can flourish. Only when we acknowledge that can hatred be removed from football.

So back to South African xenophobia. We need more leadership and legislation. We also need hashtags and demonstrations of other ways to be South African. Some of these we are getting. But a third prong is needed. This third prong needs a kind of self-examination that seems rare in these fevered times. It needs a self-examination that says that all South Africans live under the curse of apartheid, have inherited (as argued persuasively by Professor Jonathan Jansen in Knowledge In The Blood) a view of life based not on shared humanity but on race. I’ve reflected elsewhere how moving to South Africa can make you feel more racist, forcing you to think in a way you never would have.

Since democracy came 21 years ago, South Africa has embraced a flag and a view of proud nationhood which the world loves. Think back to the 2010 World Cup; bad football, but a good face to the world for the country. It’s what makes the country so appealing to many outsiders – hope, life, new identity. Alongside that, the fruit of apartheid continues to grow in the heart of all South Africans; in the soil of proud nationalism, dismissal of the other easily grows. It was well taught by apartheid, and doesn’t go away just because all citizens have the vote. It’s just subtly refocussed. Now it’s the other nations who are ‘the other’. For most that’s benign; for a few, it’s xenophobic. The third prong of attack that’s needed is the humble and gracious self-examination that says that all South Africans have skin in this game, have learned prejudice in the blood and in some way have guilt to bear.

It’s doesn’t appears to be fair at first sight, but it’s really a deeper vision of justice than mere surface level fairness. Christians call it original sin. We’re all guilty. Until that’s owned, expressed and consciously turned from, all the well-meaning efforts of politicians and activists will be of limited effectiveness.

To our knees, then.

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