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.