Racism rears its ugly head - and almost gets punched

Nelson Mandela, the man who has come to symobolise this first African World Cup, once said that "sport is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination." 

The eight teams taking part in this weekend's quarter-finals will each stand alongside a banner reading "Say No to Racism" while all of the team captains - from Iker Casillas to Phillip Lahm - will read a declaration in their native tongues denouncing discrimination in both football and society.

It is only two decades since apartheid separated racial groups in South Africa and the tensions can still be felt in some cities. While football has undoubtedly brought blacks and whites together in the stadiums, several spectators feel it is only temporary and that the World Cup is a bubble in which everything seems fine; when the Fifa chiefs float off to Brazil in a couple of weeks time, the racial tensions will remain, they say.

I was in Pretoria earlier this week for the Japan versus Paraguay match and got a first-hand view of the racial underbelly of the capital. My friend Moabi, a black South African from Johannesburg, had joined me for the trip and after the bore draw and dramatic penalty shootout, we went to Hatfield Square, a lively meeting place full of restaurants and bars and a big screen showing the Spain-Portugal clash.  

"Pretoria remains one of the most racist major cities in South Africa," Mo told me as we entered.
He said that usually he would be charged entrance, but because I was here, we likely wouldn't have any issues. (For the record, the benefit of being a foreigner was nullified when I went to get a drink and was charged double because I wasn't a local).

We met some of Mo's friends and got chatting to some locals and while the crowd was very much mixed, there was very little interaction between races: blacks sat at tables with blacks and whites sat at tables with whites. It did not feel tense, but the separation was clear.

We watched the football and enjoyed the atmosphere. With Spain very much the more popular side, there was dancing on the tables, chants of "Ole Ole" and lots of flag flying (for once, the vuvuzelas had blissfully been left at home) when the final whistle went.

We left soon after: me, Mo and a black female friend called Thato.  

As we walked past a table of twenty-something white males, one of them called out something at us. Mo and Thato walked on, either ignoring the comment or being genuinely ignorant, but I stopped in my tracks. I wasn't 100 per cent sure what he had said and thought that I may actually know him, so I returned to the table and approached the town crier.

"What was that, mate?" I asked, realising that he was as much a stranger as any of the other five guys sat at the table. 

"I said 'You should be ashamed'," replied the man, looking first at me and then at Thato and Mo. 

I stared him straight in the eye and felt the anger rise up inside of me. I not only felt insulted, but I felt my friends had been insulted too. Thato came over and took my arm, pulling me away as I moved towards the idiot and his friends.  

As we left, I was still infuriated and wondered to myself who he had supported during the opening games of the World Cup - the same Bafana Bafana team, with its sole white player in Matthew Booth, that was cheered on by millions around the world? I wondered if he was happy when Chester Williams, South Africa's only black player at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, helped his side lift the trophy against the odds on home soil. I wondered if, 12 years later, he had shown any respect to Bryan Habana, the fabulous wing, who was the protagonist in the Springboks World Cup victory in France.

Part of me wanted to go back and spend some time with him, to ask him these questions and better understand his warped way of thinking; his flawed philosophy that judges people on the colour of their skin. But mostly I just wanted to go back and punch him in the face. I didn't - not because violence wouldn't make him see otherwise, but because Thato and Mo had handled the situation with such grace.

"This kind of thing happens a lot round here," said Mo. "You just have to ignore it; it's just not worth it."

Wise words, but I can't help but feel it would be better if we didn't have to hear it in the first place. Sport is, like Mandela said, breaking barriers, but it still has a way to go.