Friday, November 20, 2009

When In Doubt, Blame The French: What To Do About An Anthem Malfunction

As anyone who has been following me on Face Book knows, I have been spending some of my free time on sports since I have been here. There's a show called Indian Cricket Highlights, about a sport I understand not at all, and my new favorite pastime is World Cup football. Indeed, all of South Africa is gearing up for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, to be held in a brand new stadium in Cape Town next winter (our summer).

Why are sports such a big deal here? I can only guess. Although fans in South Africa are clearly engaged with following leagues in many nations, as people my age may recall, one form of pressure put on the apartheid regime in the 1980s (as American corporations were happily doing business here and universities fought their students over the ethics of investing in corporations that profited from apartheid labor economics) was to bar South Africa from international athletic competition. Although journalist Adam Hochschild, in his book The Mirror at Midnight (1984), describes South Africa as a notoriously "sports-mad culture," it isn't clear to me that this is more so here than in the United States. One can only imagine the howls of hurt and outrage from the United States were other nations to have protested George Bush's illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in a similar way.

Given this political history, in addition to the promise of sorely needed construction and service jobs, the World Cup may be symbolically important for the international profile of a recently democratic state that still so troubled by poverty, violence and unemployment. Budding C.L.R. James that I aspire to be, recently I have been riveted as well by an ongoing scandal in the politics of sport here: the "butchering" of the South African National anthem by South African Rasta singer Ras Dumisani prior to the rugby match between the Springboks and France played in Toulouse last Friday.

Anthems are often difficult to sing, and this one seems to present more challenges than most. Sung in five languages -- Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, English and Afrikaans -- it is a blend of old and new, combining parts of the African National Congress (ANC) protest hymn "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" with the pre-1994 anthem, "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika/The Voice of South Africa." And yet, since it doesn't seem like to much to ask for one's anthem to be sung properly, some have inferred -- or said directly -- that the French were playing mind games with the Springboks by deliberately hiring an incompetent singer. "The French from as early as 1959 were portrayed by one of their famous writers, Rene Goscinny, as shrewd, small sized warriors and therefore the birth of the well known Asterix," wrote one person who commented on this story in The Cape Times. "Asterix had a secret weapon called Cacofonix. a man that sang so badly that it would start rain and thunderstorms. The singing was so bad that all enemies would eventually surrender. Was this, maybe, the old French ploy when The South African Anthem was sung?"

Intentionally or unintentionally, the Springboks were stung and insulted, becoming emotionally unglued as they tried, unsuccessfully, to complete their normal pre-game ritual by singing along lustily. Apparently this was a disruption equivalent to preventing New Zealand's All-Blacks from performing a haka prior to a test match. One Springbok confessed after the loss that he had begun to weep at the pain of hearing the beloved anthem mangled and at his own frustrated efforts to sing the words correctly. Absent their pre-game ritual, the Springboks lost the match 20-13. Furious, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) has received an apology from its French counterpart, and from Dumisani -- although the singer also noted "that the French were to blame" for "sabotaging my performance with an old microphone and a bunch of school kids."

In an unfortunate (and possibly unintentional) reference to a recent political past, SA Rugby Blog reports the emergence of a Face Book site called Ban Ras Dumisani from ever singing again: a recent check revealed that it has acquired almost 7,000 fans. The plot thickens, however, since it was revealed almost immediately that Dumisani's name had been provided by the South African embassy in France. An anonymous source has suggested that the performer was probably stoned when he meandered his way tonelessly though the anthem, forgetting words and sometimes substituting alternative ones. This unnamed source suggested to the Cape Times that Dumisani had done well in rehearsal, but that by the time of the match "his condition was such that it was unlikely he would perform nicely."

Hence, the political story has shifted from the international sphere to the domestic. Although SARU's Oregan Hoskins is ready to close the book on this matter following the French apology (and really, when you compare it to accounting for the bad planning that went into the Maginot Line, this must have been an easy apology to make), South Africa's politicians have just begun to get into the game. Litho Suka, a Member of Parliament representing the ANC "has suggested that those who butcher South Africa's national anthem be charged with treason," and that Dumisani should be hauled up before a judge. The chairman of the National Assembly's sports committee, Butana Komphela, says that his committee will be meeting with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to demand some accountability from the embassy as well. The Sports Committee will be seeking assurances that the government will act "to ensure that all South African embassies have the correct version of the national anthem, the correct flag and will be able to source credible singers for national events taking place outside the country."

7 comments:

Kate said...

One thing to keep in mind is the importance of rugby in the transition from apartheid. Being banned from the Rugby World Cup was a major blow to South Africans, and the promise of restoration of international rugby to South Africa as part of the elimination of apartheid I think actually contributed to its downfall. Nelson Mandela's subsequent appearance at the RWC after being elected president of the post-apartheid state made him accessible to a lot of working class whites. The national rugby team, while far from fully representational in terms of race, was also desegregated much before either crickt or soccer. There were a whole host of incidents in the early-mid 1990s about who qualified as "coloured" and who qualified as "white" - was the son of a white anti-apartheid activist, who had previously been banned from the national team for being too sympathetic to blacks and coloureds, a white player or a coloured player? How to combine two parallel systems of rugby development into a single system? How will the professional leagues integrate?
Rugby is fascinating - in South Africa, it symbolized a post-apartheid coming together. In New Zealand, race and rugby symbolizes the quiet colonialism that stands in sharp contrast to the otherwise progressive governments. In France, it is the sport of elites, with immense social capital funneled through specific club teams. In the US? men's rugby is like a giant frat, while women's rugby is the most racially diverse field sport, especially of the club field sports played by post-collegiate women. I would send you the paper I did on the subject...but I never got IRB approval for the field work because it was for a methods class and I don't really do the sociology of sport, I just needed a field site for the methods class and my rugby team was super conveinient.

As for the relationship of rugby to transitioning from apartheid, Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman (playing Nelson Mandela!) are in a new movie called Invictis. I have no idea when it comes out in SA, but it comes out in the US in December.

Susan said...

TR, as an aspiring CLR James, you *must* learn cricket. It's not that different from baseball. If you can possibly find someone who knows baseball and cricket, they should be able to explain it to you. It's just that nothing is foul, you don't have to run, and you're in until you get out (no three strikes).

I don't know as much about cricket as Kate does about rugby. Cricket was just as important, and the sporting boycott began when SA's cricket team was one of the best in the world. (My sense is that the difference is that cricket was the Anglo sport.) During apartheid, there would be unofficial tours (the money was a draw) but the black South Africans would always cheer whoever was playing against SA. At the first international after the fall of apartheid, Mandela said something along the lines of how amazing it was to watch cricket and think of the South African team as representing him.

There have been continuing tensions around race in South African cricket, and about 10 years ago the captain of S African cricket team was involved in a huge gambling scandal.

Shane in Utah said...

A clarification: the World Cup will be played in 10 stadiums (stadia?) around the country, including such metropoli as Nelspruit. Not just Cape Town.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Litho Suka, a Member of Parliament representing the ANC "has suggested that those who butcher South Africa's national anthem be charged with treason," and that Dumisani should be hauled up before a judge.

What'd they borrow this fuck-up from our Republican Party? Instead of worrying about a stupid fucking song, maybe they should focus on why their team sucks.

Ellie said...

@Kate-that's really interesting about the RWC and SA. Is there something to do with empire and settlement colonialism here, too? Unscientifically speaking, it seems to me that the truly "sports-mad" countries of the world are mainly former settler colonies (SA, NZ, Australia, USA, Canada, Brazil) where sports was either or both an expression of British-style imperial masculinity of the Baden-Powell variety and a key means for (quasi-secessionist) settler identity formation/post-independence nationalism.

Not to say that the former colonizers don't themselves get mad about sports, however, or national anthems for that matter. In France, it's become customary for young people of North African descent to whistle down the "Marseillaise" when France plays a North African team in football. Last year, the government even ordered prosecutors to identify and charge those involved with "outrages to the national anthem," an act punishable by 6 months in prison and 7500 euros in fines when committed in a group. And the anti-Thierry Henry Facebook groups created by Ireland fans after Henry's handball gave France the victory had tens of thousands of members within 24 hours. Maybe that tanks the empire theory?!

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