South Africa is festooned with the national flag, and extraordinary energy is being dedicated to developing popular public imagery of a nation united. But where does all this apparent patriotism leave us once the last goal has been scored and the flags and banners have been taken down?
In the past few weeks South Africa has opened its arms to the world and billions of television viewers have been watching every day as the World Cup proceeds. The finals are just less than a week away.
The magnitude of the moment is not lost on us. As a milestone in nation building, South Africa is putting on a fine show.
Our flag flies from vehicles, homes, street lamps, trees, in-store light fittings, motorbikes and buses. It’s displayed on wristbands that sit snugly on the arms of the nation.
You can’t avoid this display of nationhood, in which vuvuzelas have moved out of the realm of soccer and become part of our national noise.
Fridays have required a wardrobe adjustment in order to wear the national colours. Numbers such as 11, 16 and 64 have taken on national significance.
In short, South Africa has fully mobilised itself for the world’s greatest sports spectacle. But, alongside all the excitement, the benefits to the nation of this world football fest have also been questioned, deconstructed and demythologised.
Documentaries and books have exposed the messy side of this world event. The question that continues to be kicked around is: Given the billions spent by the government on preparing for this event, what are the long-term benefits for South Africans?
The latest buzzwords in national marketing are legacy campaign to market the possibility that the World Cup might have a long-term positive impact.
Being South African means more than merely flying the flag, though one could miss this if persuaded by our football focused narrative of nationhood. To quote the sentiment of Adlai E Stevenson, the United States ambassador to the United Nations in the early 1960s, nationhood and national development are not about short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but about the steady, lifelong commitment of all citizens.
As individuals and communities, South Africans need to ask themselves what such a steady, lifelong commitment means in practice.
Has there been a decline in community spirit over the past 16 years, and is there diminishing public action on economic and social disempowerment?
Remember, for example, the energy of the street committees of the l980s, organising widespread citizen activism towards liberation in South Africa.
Think of the positive impact South Africans could have on the health of this nation’s children if all communities were directly involved in community-based support systems, and the development of facilities to ensure child protection and wellbeing.
This is the value of citizen involvement, where the argument of many hands make light work scores far more than the alternative of too many cooks spoil the broth.
Social wellbeing and human development are not only the responsibility of the government or business. They are certainly not the responsibility of the world, FIFA, or any external actors. They are the responsibility of all South Africans.
This means that civic or citizen involvement is the responsibility of individuals.
Where does that leave this country once the last goal has been scored?
As citizens, South Africans need to generate from within the sense of possibility and promise that this country has been so willing to expect and accept from a momentous world sporting event. Does South Africa need the eyes of the world on it to stimulate and infuse this kind of energy?
South Africans need to take back and own a sense of commitment to the nation’s wellbeing. This is our country, our society, our community, our future. Leaving it to the government, business or the global environment makes no sense if we are serious about our futures. In a stand-up-and-be counted way, the future really does depend on you. Philanthropy is at the core of each of us seeing ourselves as part of a national whole, as engaged citizens where the good health of our communities is shaped by the levels of individual involvement and will to contribute to social development.
While there are many ways of being involved in our own community development, philanthropic giving is critical. With sufficient local wealth, and citizens mobilised with national energy, there is little that South Africans cannot initiate and achieve.
South African development is not a once-off event. We do not need a world of soccer fans to watch what this country is capable of.
Rather, philanthropy, social investment and giving should be the topic of regular dinner conversation. It should not be limited to questions about what impact a foundation had this year, but include discussions around how each of us through social giving can contribute to community building, nation-building and long-term social development.
South Africans need to be tailcing about and imagining a South Africa that belongs to us, and for which individual and collective responsibility is recognised.
This is a vision, an imagining, that contributes to narratives of national identity founded on the original social gift relationship, and on the obligation to give, receive and reciprocate.
Philanthropic giving is not about short, frenzied outbursts, but about the steady commitment of individuals to long-term positive social impact. So, after the last team has left, South Africans need to keep the flag flying as a constant reminder to take responsibility for their future.
Better still, South Africans need to fly a flag for philanthropic giving and a spirit of commitment that is not about large sums of money, but about social giving and long-term involvement in South African development.
Let this be the legacy of the 2010 World Cup.
- Gabrielle Ritchie is programme director of Inyathelo – The South African Institute for Advancement, which is dedicated to building a sustainable South African civil society through social responsibility, personal philanthropy, voluntarism and self reliance. This article first appeared in the Daily News. It is republished here with the permission of Inyathelo – The South African Institute for Advancement.