A World Cup Final in the Shadows of History

A World Cup Final in the Shadows of History

A World Cup Final in the Shadows of History

Many South Africans were cheering for the Netherlands in yesterday’s World Cup final—some embracing a connection to Dutch forbears, others to the Netherlands’ solidarity in the struggle against apartheid.


Two-and-a-half hours before kickoff, Madiba Restaurant was already pumping. The buzz of vuvuzelas reverberated off the brick and wooden walls of this, the first South African restaurant in New York City. The host nation had long since bowed out of the World Cup, but the atmosphere inside was festive, as fans streamed in sporting the colors of South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, Manchester United, Barcelona, Brazil and, of course, the day’s two finalists, the Netherlands and Spain. As the Netherlands took the field to warm up, one Dutch fan at the bar, clad in all orange—T-shirt, shorts, shoes and sunglasses—stood up and shouted, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much, motherfuckers!!” Loud cheers followed. 

The scene contained more than a hint of irony. After all, it’s the Afrikaner, the descendant of the predominantly Dutch migrants that first settled in the Cape in 1652, who will forever be the face of South African racism. The Afrikaners imposed racial discrimination throughout present-day South Africa’s interior after their subjugation of the local tribes in the 1830s, and in 1948, the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party formally introduced apartheid.

Now, with the game approaching, the Netherlands stood poised to claim its first-ever World Cup title and to do it on South African soil. It wasn’t quite France about to triumph in Algeria, but for a country in which the memory of apartheid remains so raw, the political subtext has been inescapable. When the Dutch team arrived in South Africa a little over a month ago, the national press had been fixated since March on the controversy surrounding Julius Malema, leader of the African National Congress Youth League, who had revived an apartheid-era song featuring the lyrics, “Kill the Boer”—“Boer” an often derogatory term for Afrikaners.

But for many black South Africans, politics did not harden them to the Dutch fans’ renowned charms. When it comes to the world’s biggest sporting events, the Dutch are the guests at the party that everyone wants to have a drink with. The Afrikaner population accounted for much of the local support in South Africa, but Dutch fever transcended racial barriers. When the Netherlands played Uruguay in the semifinals in Cape Town, an orange monsoon swept through the coastal city, as South Africans and Dutch visitors alike sported orange garments of every variety. Politics was a distant afterthought. At Madiba too, I met Afrikaners supporting Spain and black South Africans supporting the Netherlands for no other reason than they liked the way their favored team plays. 

The political element was not completely absent from the equation, though. Tassha Ngolela, a black South African visiting New York from Pretoria, cited South Africa’s historical links to the Netherlands as one of the biggest reasons she was cheering for the Dutch in the final. “We speak Dutch,” she explained to me, before going on to clarify that Afrikaans, the Afrikaner language now spoken by South Africans of all races, is not exactly the same thing as its linguistic forebear.

Other black South Africans have been less enamored by their compatriots’ apparent embrace of their colonial past. The Netherlands’ semifinal victory in Cape Town prompted widespread invocations in the local media of an old Afrikaans slogan, “Die Kaap is weer Hollands” (“The Cape is Dutch again”), to which a friend from Cape Town complained, “I don’t have a problem with enjoying the soccer for what it’s worth but when so many are using terms that relate to colonization to now support and to indicate Dutch favor, that to me is not only a matter of discourse!”

In reality, the ties between the modern Dutch and Afrikaners are thin. The biggest wave of Afrikaner immigration—which included Germans and French as well—occurred between the 1650s and 1790s. Today, most South Africans, Afrikaner and otherwise, don’t perceive any real relationship between the Afrikaners and Dutch. Stephen Ellis, a member of the African Studies Centre in Leiden, The Netherlands, observed that Afrikaners view the Netherlands as a foreign nation, although some derive great amusement when you speak Dutch to them, as it “sounds very old fashioned and archaic.”

The Netherlands also had one of the strongest track records on apartheid among Western nations. After some initial displays of solidarity with the Nationalist government in the 1950s, the Netherlands became one of its most vocal European critics beginning in the 1960s. The antiapartheid movement was especially strong, with some young Dutch people even joining the underground liberation struggle. In addition, the Dutch government assumed a leading role in developing underprivileged areas. Peter Alegi, the Italian-American author of two books on soccer in Africa, first came to South Africa in 1993 as a sports coach in a program funded by the Dutch Development Agency.   

Still, after centuries of insisting upon their “Africanness” to justify their claims to the land, Afrikaners’ newfound kinship with the Dutch can rankle. Another friend in South Africa reported someone at his gym saying before the semifinal that he was going to support his “distant white cousins.” Despite the Netherlands’ mostly clean hands in South Africa’s racist history, even its merely symbolic ties with that past, from apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd’s Dutch descent to Afrikaans’ Dutch roots, are enough to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many blacks. 

Back at Madiba, a packed house watched Andrés Iniesta claim a dramatic victory for Spain in the dying minutes of overtime. As the final whistle blew, there were both cheers and a few long faces from some of the more ardent Netherlands supporters. But moments later, the DJ perched above the bar cranked up the music, and everyone was dancing. I’ve never believed that politics and sport can, or should, be kept mutually exclusive, but as the party kicked into gear, the most political thought I could conjure was joy that South Africa has dispelled all the pre-tournament fears about runaway crime and substandard infrastructure and a country too messed up to stage the world’s greatest show.

Africa’s first World Cup is over. Here’s to many more.

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