South Africa is a nation obsessed by sport, where heights of devotion are reached whenever local or international teams take to the field. Winning performances, controversial selections and scandals commonly dominate the front as well as the back pages of newspapers, and it can be hard to escape the domination of sport across radio, television and advertising media. The major spectator sports are football, rugby and cricket, and big matches involving the international team or heavyweight local clubs are well worth seeing live.
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Football is the country’s most popular game, with a primarily black and coloured following, and it is now starting to attract serious money.
The professional season runs from August to May, with teams competing in the Premier Soccer League (www.thepsl.co.za) and a couple of knock-out cup competitions. Unlike rugby teams, football teams do not own their own grounds and are forced to rent them for specific fixtures. In Gauteng, the heartland of South African football, all the big clubs use the same grounds, which has prevented the development of the kind of terrace fan culture found elsewhere. Nonetheless, football crowds are generally witty and good-spirited. The very big games, normally involving Johannesburg’s two big teams, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, do simmer with tension, though violence is rare. Although Chiefs and Pirates are both Sowetan clubs, they have a nationwide following, and their derbies are the highlight of the PSL’s fixture list.
Games are played on weekday evenings (usually at 7.30pm or 8.30pm) and at 3pm on Saturdays. Tickets cost about R40 to watch top teams play. The national squad, nicknamed Bafana Bafana (literally “boys boys” but connoting “our lads”), qualified for the World Cup finals in both 1998 and 2002, but in 2006 the national team bit the dust when they were brought down by a decisive 3–0 defeat to Ghana in their second match.
Erratic performers, Bafana are imaginative and strong on spectacular athletic feats, but less impressive when it comes to teamwork and resilience. Even games the team should win have an element of unpredictability that makes for great spectator sport. Indeed, at the 2010 World Cup, Bafana delivered an entertaining draw against Mexico in the opening match, but against Uruguay suffered the worst defeat (3–0) for a host nation since 1970 (when Mexico lost to Italy). The hosts went on to put up a spirited performance against France, whom they beat 2–0, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Bafana from being eliminated.
Rugby is hugely popular with whites, though attempts to broaden the game’s appeal, particularly to a black audience, have struggled. South Africa’s victory against England at the 2007 World Cup final in Paris did for a brief spell bring the whole country together. The strength of emotion almost matched that shown in 1995 when South Africa hosted the event. Coming shortly after the advent of democracy, it attracted fanatical attention nationwide, particularly when the Boks triumphed and President Nelson Mandela donned a green Springbok jersey (long associated exclusively with whites) to present the cup to the winning side – as depicted in the 2009 Clint Eastwood movie Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman.
Following that, the goodwill dissipated, to be replaced by an acrimonious struggle to transform the traditionally white sports (cricket and rugby) into something more representative of all race groups, particularly following the government’s policy of enforcing racial quotas in national squads.
Despite these problems, the country’s two World Cup victories in twelve years testify to the fact that South Africa is extraordinarily good at rugby, and you are likely to witness high-quality play when you watch either inter-regional or international games. The main domestic competition is the Currie Cup, with games played on weekends from March to October; admission to one of these matches costs from R55.
More recently this has been overshadowed by the Super 14 competition, involving regional teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Matches are staged annually from late February to the end of May in all three countries, and in South Africa you’ll catch a fair bit of action in the major centres of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, though smaller places such as Port Elizabeth, East London and George sometimes get a look-in.
International fixtures involving the Springboks are dominated by visiting tours by northern-hemisphere teams and by the annual Tri-Nations competition, in which South Africa plays home and away fixtures against Australia and New Zealand. These are normally played from June to August, and you will need to get tickets well in advance to attend.
Cricket was for some years seen as the most progressive of the former white sports, with development programmes generating support and discovering talent among black and coloured communities. The sport was rocked to its foundations in 2000, however, when it was revealed that the South African national captain, Hansie Cronje, had received money from betting syndicates hoping to influence the outcome of one-day matches. Cronje was banned for life, the credibility of the sport took a dive and the national team, the Proteas (formerly the Springboks), struggled for years to raise itself, successfully clawing its way back by 2009 to a respectable number two in international test-match rankings, a position it still held in 2011.
The domestic season of inter-regional games runs from October to April, and the main competitions are the four-day Supersport Series, the series of one-day, forty-overs matches, the MTN40, and the shorter twenty-overs Standard Bank Pro20. The contests see six regional squads slogging it out for national dominance. Games are played throughout the week, and admission is from R50. In the international standings, South Africa is one of the world’s top teams, and you stand a good chance of being around for an international test or one-day series if you’re in the country between November and March. Expect to pay from R100 for an international, which are played in all the major cities.
Running and cycling
South Africa is very strong at long-distance running, a tradition that reached its apotheosis at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when Josiah Thugwane won the marathon, becoming the first black South African ever to bag Olympic gold. The biggest single athletics event in South Africa, the Comrades Marathon, attracts nearly fifteen thousand participants, among them some of the world’s leading international ultra-marathon runners. The ninety-kilometre course crosses the hilly country between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, with a drop of almost 800m between the town and the coast. Run annually towards the end of May, the race alternates direction each year and is notable for having been non-racial since 1975, although it wasn’t until 1989 that a black South African, Samuel Tshabalala, won it. Since then, black athletes have dominated the front rankings. Almost as famous is the Two Oceans ultra-marathon, which attracts ten thousand competitors each April to test themselves on the 56-kilometre course that spectacularly circuits the Cape Peninsula.
Traversing a 109-kilometre route, the Pick ’n Pay Cape Argus Cycle Tour also includes the Cape Peninsula in its routing. The largest – and most spectacular – individually timed cycle race anywhere, it attracts 35,000 participants from around the world each year in March.
You’ll find huge interest among rich and poor South Africans in horse racing, with totes and tracks in all the main cities. Its popularity is partly due to the fact that for decades this was the only form of public gambling that South Africa’s Afrikaner Calvinist rulers allowed – on the pretext that it involved skill not chance. The highlight of the racing calendar is the Durban July Handicap held at Durban’s Greyville racecourse. A flamboyant event, it attracts huge crowds, massive purses, socialites in outrageous headgear and vast amounts of media attention.