A WORLD turned upside down: that was one newspaper’s headline take on the Covid-19 pandemic and for once the media cannot be accused of overdoing the hype. Pictures of European cities tell an eerie tale and there is a sense that this could be a significant point in human history. One of the hardest-hit sectors is professional sport and there is every indication that once the world emerges from its inversion, the grip of big finance will have tightened on it even further. Many small outfits will go to the wall.

Last month (although it feels aeons ago) South Africa experienced its annual exercise in burlesque known as SONA (State of the Nation Address) in parliament. Predictably Economic Freedom Fighter MPs, attired in red overalls and domestic worker outfits in spite of their enormous salary packages, disrupted proceedings for an hour by raising spurious points of order. After proceedings were suspended they left, fortunately without the fisticuffs that have disgraced previous SONAs.

Then followed a long and drearily predictable presidential speech that offered one or two hints of hope that will inevitably be quashed by the Zupta ideologues who still run the ANC. But first the nation was introduced (see picture) to Miss Universe (Zozibini Tunzi) and Mr Springbok (Siyamthanda Kolisi). After the neo-fascists’ disruptive, pseudo-revolutionary behaviour came the feel-good factor before the nation was yet again plunged into the realisation that its government continues to lead it (literally, in view of Eskom’s problems) into a very dark place.

It all brought back memories of last November. Following the South African rugby team’s World Cup victory there were days of nationalist, orgiastic self-congratulation that featured a bus tour of selected regions. For weeks overweight, unfit-looking (largely white) people were to be seen out shopping wearing their Springbok kit even though they probably could not catch a rugby ball to save their lives. The most extraordinary statements were made by normally level-headed people like Desmond Tutu and Pravin Gordhan who seemed to have taken leave of both their senses and reality. There was endless rhetoric about unity, togetherness and national ability; even suggestions that one rugby match had the power to turn around the economy and showed that South Africans could achieve ‘anything’. This is on the strength of joyful street celebrations and much singing, screaming and shouting. No one has ever doubted the ability of South Africans to stage a very successful noisy party. It’s the serious part of life where severe inadequacies show.

At the time of the rugby triumph the finance minister in his medium-term budget scenario described an economy that is slowly collapsing under the weight of corruption and mismanagement and a range of discouraging indicators. His manner was surprisingly upbeat and suggested that not much will change enabling the political elite to continue to sleep well even though six million South African children suffer regular hunger and live below the food poverty line.

At the end of October many social grant recipients living on the breadline had again received incomplete payments; some none at all. And in Cape Town police treated refugees desperate enough to leave their xenophobic and violent communities with further viciousness: stun grenades, pepper spray and water cannon. Children were wrenched from mothers’ arms and meagre belongings kicked around.

Not long after the Springbok victory Pietermaritzburg’s daily newspaper carried two front page stories about local sport. The most serious involved the collapse of amateur football and was accompanied by a picture of a sad-looking Ben Hartshorne, prominent member of Savages, which is one of the world’s oldest clubs. The cause? Municipal sports grounds have been built upon, vandalised, and turned into taxi ranks; or simply neglected by dysfunctional local government. The other story concerned a lack of training facilities for indoor football (fusbal).

Sport can be a very powerful and positive catalyst. In schools it helps create cohesion and identity, and inculcates certain disciplines important to adulthood. In communities it promotes health, keeps young people away from anti-social behaviour, and fosters a sense of belonging through participation. It is recreation in the very best sense of the word and helps people lead balanced lives.

International, professional sport is anything but healthy. For many years now it has been no more than another commercial product. There is nothing uplifting about sitting on a couch watching televised sport managed by people whose main aim is to persuade you to consume yet more of their often unhealthy products. Yet powerful political and commercial interests pump out the propaganda that national redemption can be found through the Springboks – although apparently only every twelve years.

There was something vaguely obscene about the celebrations as they showed up a lack of real concern about almost everything else. Just as long as there is rugby, all will be fine. But, apart from the hunger and xenophobia mentioned above, what about the 30 000 plus people who die violent, unnatural deaths every year, particularly on the roads; or the shocking record of basic education that leaves South Africa at the bottom of global leagues measuring literacy and numeracy? Women and children are subject to shameful levels of violence including endemic rape in an irredeemably patriarchal society. Many parents, possibly most, believe they should have the right to beat the living daylights out of their children. The teaching and nursing professions are in crisis.

How exactly is a rugby victory, which will inevitably be followed in due course by rugby defeats because that is the cyclical nature of sport, going to remedy these multiple ills? It takes a sports victory to expose the delusions and illusions of contemporary South African society. One particularly egregious example is the fourth industrial revolution. The media are full of earnest discussion of the economic transformation to come. But this will remain a unicorn unless the education system and Eskom are mended. The revolution’s exponents and propagandists seem unconcerned that South Africa may soon have no electricity. Of course there is a solution: break up the gravy train that is Eskom into viable parts and run it on the basis of public/private partnerships. But the history and politics of the ANC make this impossible because it will mean sacrificing too many holy cows, including the predominant, malignant one – racial nationalism.

Living in parallel worlds is, however, accepted by many South Africans. The obvious example, the disjunction between extreme wealth and poverty, is largely ignored and finds a convenient outlet in violence against foreigners. After all, Africa’s not for sissies shrug the optimists. And while few indicators show any reason whatsoever for optimism there was always up to now the prospect of more rugby. Never mind the bread while the circus is in town. When the pandemic dies down there is every prospect that it will be even more prominent, controlled and monetised.