Twenty years ago almost to the day, Francois Pienaar and his band played the Rugby World Cup final. It’s one of the disturbing tricks of the light of living an increasingly long time that so many anniversaries keep constantly ticking by, as though real life doesn’t happen any more and every day or every minute is just the memento of some other mori – Jaws was released 40 years ago! Kurt Cobain’s been dead for 21 years! It’s been ten years since the first human being became intolerant to gluten! – but some anniversaries feel more disorienting than others.
I watched almost every game of the ‘95 World Cup with an irregular group of different ages. Someone gave me tickets to the final but I preferred to watch with my pals. There was my friend Mark and his dad Frank and Doctor Teddy and Professor Black the economist and their young kids and another guy who no one really liked and a shifting cast of extras who would arrive for this game or that game and have opinions about James Dalton. Mark and I had plastic novelty mugs from the Spur in the shape of rugby balls that we filled with beer even though the plastic made the beer taste terrible and we’d leave them to one side while we drank Dr Teddy’s wine and before each game we’d gather and shout and jiggle with nervous energy and play Dr Freddie’s weird CD of national anthems and Dr Teddy would shout at him to take it off because he only liked the Irish one and we’d debate how to stop Jonah Lomu and we’d wonder, with each passing game, whether we yet dared dream. Some of us were young, and some of us were even younger, and some of us were the same age then that I am now.
It wasn’t really the rugby that mattered, it was the sense, however old we were, that we had pushed through the fur coats at the back of the wardrobe and had stumbled blinking into a new and magical world that looked a little like the old one but felt completely different, and we were still learning its rules. It’s the world in union, sang PJ Powers with some conviction, and a new age has begun.
No one really thought we were going to win the World Cup, even after we beat Australia in the opening match. We hadn’t yet grown peevish and entitled. We hoped we would win, we loudly proclaimed we would win, but deep down we all knew we were a new nation tottering on new legs and we’d already lived through one miracle. One miracle is statistically achievable; two miracles in a row stop being miracles.
We all just barely survived the semi-final against France in the rain, when we thought players might drown and our own hearts might stop, when the hand of God reached across and grabbed Abdul Benazzi’s ankle and brought him down short of the line in the last minute of the match. When Joel’s second drop-goal went over in the final and we lasted the unending seven minutes till the whistle, my friend, as staunch and sound an atheist as you’ll ever meet, grabbed me and hollered uncontrollably: “God loves us! God loves us!”
And that’s what it felt like: somehow, somewhere, against all the evidence to the contrary, we must have done something right. We were forgiven for decades of being just about the worst nation on Earth, and not just forgiven but rewarded. Of course there were problems, we knew there were problems, but problems were small and it was the big things that mattered. All that stuff about rainbows and nations and Vicky Sampson’s African dream wasn’t only real, it was true. We had proof: we were special. The next year we won the African Cup of Nations.
Of course we were fools. We were naïve and willfully blind and Pollyannas and life isn’t like that, but for a while it seemed it was. In a way, it seems cruel to have had so much unearned joy in so short a time. It was fantasy. We were like children coddled by their parents, who are given awards at every sports day and given presents on Christmas Day and told that everything is all right and that Santa Claus gives presents to everybody.
I think very fondly of the fellows I watched with. One of us became a billionaire and others of us didn’t; three of us divorced and some remarried. Some of us have lost children and others have gained. Life happened to us, and to South Africa. On Wednesday, twenty years to the day, we buried one of us in Pinelands. I’m tired of anniversaries. I want new things to celebrate.
Times, 25 June 2015