Whenever we told anyone that we were going to attend a soccer (er, football) game, we were greeted with raised eyebrows. Actually, let me clarify: whenever we told any white person that we were going to attend a soccer gamer, we were greeted with raised eyebrows. The eyebrows differed in meaning from intrigued surprise to disapproving bewilderment, but they were all raised just the same.
In South Africa, sports – like so much else – carry a racial identifier. Rugby is the sport of white Afrikaners, though there have been repeated efforts to make the team a source of national pride across racial lines. These efforts have had mixed results, with highs such as the triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which took place in South Africa and featured Nelson Mandela rallying the nation behind the team, and lows such as this year’s efforts to get a court order to stop the South African team from leaving the country for its failure to make greater efforts to include black South Africans on its roster or in its player development. Soccer is the sport of the black South Africans. Cricket seems to draw the most diverse crowds, though the national and professional teams are predominantly white – at the matches we’ve been to, there has been significant black, white, and Indian representation in the stands. These distinctions are not wholly accurate, but they are generally true.
Undeterred by raised eyebrows, we set out to the stadium here in Bloemfontein for a soccer match between the local team, Bloem Celtic and the Kaizer Chiefs, a club from the Soweto townships near Johannesburg that is sort of the Lakers or Cowboys of South African soccer.
I instructed the family to wear green to ensure our Celtic allegiance and avoid any conflict with local supporters, but was surprised to find that 80% of the stadium were Chiefs supporters. We had nothing to worry about – other fans took more notice at the color of our skin, which stuck out in the audience, than the color of our shirts. I assume they recognized us to be not local.
The game itself was a treat. We were surrounded by the kind of passionate fans that make soccer so exciting outside of the US (and increasingly within in). Throughout the game, there was a constant buzz of vuvuzelas, small plastic horns that led Ben to cover his ears for large portions of the game. There was constant chanting and back-and-forth rocking in the stands, and the play on the field was exciting as well. We were rewarded with goals by both teams, accompanied by the resulting pandemonium among the crowd. There were a couple of occasions of spectator saltiness – a “down-in-front” argument that resulted in thrown food, for example – but nothing that I hadn’t seen before at college football games back home. On the whole, we had a pleasant enough experience that we committed to returning for a future game.
But what was most striking about the soccer game experience and that connects to our larger overall experience here was the almost total lack of regulation present. As an American, particularly an American sports spectator, I am accustomed to a particular level of regulation – there are assigned seats, licensed vendors, uniformed ushers, velvet ropes. There is a level of predictability that is not only a social norm of attending a game, but that is enforced by stadium personnel. At the Celtic-Chiefs match, there was none of this. There were surely norms that we were unfamiliar with, but there was a complete absence of any official enforcement.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is an almost total lack of regulation of life in South Africa as compared to the U.S. I cannot say for certain whether that suggests that our lives at home are overregulated or that life here is underregulated, but I can say that there is an enormous gap. Perhaps this is the result of the differing capacities of government in the two places – the government here may simply be incapable of providing the level of regulation and oversight that we are accustomed to back home, oversight that has become mostly invisible at home and that I am only noticing in earnest in its absence here. At home, there is a policy or a protocol for pretty much everything – this includes all sorts of government regulations as well as rules imposed by places of businesses, like stadiums or arenas. Here, there is a much greater degree of flexibility – even rules that do exist are reduced to suggestions and are selectively enforced. In our four months here, I have not seen a single police officer. And I have been surprised in my research to find that the government has largely left alone the country’s better public schools, granting levels of autonomy that go beyond even what American private schools have.
There were early clues to this situation during the visa application process. At one point, an applicant in line was told that a certain process would cost $130, but when it was clear that he would have to go to an ATM for that sum, the price changed to $50, the amount he had with him. But the freedom – that is the correct word for it – was on most vivid display at the Celtic-Chiefs soccer game.
First of all, the tickets we purchased did not guarantee us a particular seat. While this may not be unheard of for high school sporting events at home, it is difficult to imagine a 50,000 seat stadium in the U.S. being filled on a first-come, first-served basis for a top-level sporting event. Second, there was virtually no stadium personnel regulating anything, whether where people sat or disruptive fan behavior. Perhaps most strikingly, the stadium was teeming with vendors. This was not the beer guy making his way through the aisles. This was hundreds of independent entrepreneurs milling through the crowd selling whatever they had for whatever they could get.
There were people with giant garbage sacks filled with small bags of potato chips. There were people who had brought in portable grills that were grilling meat and then carrying it in styrofoam to sell to the audience. There were people who would put a stamp with one of the team’s logos on your cheek for a fee. There were people selling hats, shirts, scarves, vuvuzelas and other memorabilia. There were people selling watch batteries and cell phones. And there was even one guy, who we will always refer to as Cabbage Man, apparently a huge Chiefs supporter, who was selling heads of cabbage to fans (picture above, and visible in the first few seconds of the video above, running through the crowd with a cabbage in each hand). Can you imagine carrying a giant bag of food or memorabilia to sell into a Grizzlies game? And even if you could get it in, could you imagine laying out a blanket in the stadium concourse to display your offerings? I plan to grab some cabbage for my first Grizz game back home just to see what I can get away with. I assume the cabbage won’t make it in. It is hard to say that this is either good or bad- it did not make any difference on our enjoyment of the game – but it was clearly unusual from our perspective.
Although the soccer game was a particularly striking example of the gap in levels of regulation, the gap is present more broadly and I’ve been giving some thought to it. There is no doubt that the absence of American-style regulation and predictability can be disorienting from an American perspective – its tough to plan when posted hours of operation are not necessarily followed. But as time has progressed, I have definitely adjusted. I was hardly surprised when we showed up for horseback riding a few weeks ago to find that the stable attendants had no clue we were coming, had no way of accepting payment, and (lawyers, cover your eyes!) just plopped the four of us on horses without signing any sort of liability disclaimer or providing any sort of safety preparation. They just tossed us a few helmets, saddled up the horses, and off we went.
Certainly there is some level of independence in this unregulated way of life, but there is also a loss of some trust. Back home, I enjoy a greater level of confidence that the food I eat, the activities I do, the seats I pay for will be what I expect them to be. Whether that is well-placed confidence or not is a separate discussion, but here, the tradeoff for flexibility is a loss of predictability. I suspect that when we are back home, we will at the same time enjoy the predictability of our regulated world and miss the wide openness of life here.
[Post-Script] We attended another cricket match last night. It was fantastic. On the whole, it was slightly more regulated than the soccer match, with one glaring exception. As at American sporting events, they had a small cannon to shoot prizes from, and as at American sporting events, people go bonkers trying to capture tiny rubber balls. What was very different was that at the cricket match, this scene unfolded on a giant lawn where the crowd was spread out on picnic blankets, and where hordes of children followed the cannon-shooter around like the pied piper. While this was disruptive to picnickers as the horde rolled through the crowd, the real trouble started when the prizes were shot into the air – the kids rushed through the lawn, crawling over each other, stumbling over picnic blankets and people, and otherwise steamrolling whatever was in their path. It was like being overrun by a mob of people under five feet tall. We witnessed a bloody nose, a minor trampling, and, on our blanket, a spilled cup of wine. We kept our eyes open when the prize cannon returned and Sadie, Ben, and I manned our blanket, protecting it vigorously.]