How Sports Unite Us – By Nontsikelelo Khunju

How Clive Barker’s death was a chilling reminder of the power of sport to unite us

By: Nontsikelelo Khunju

I maneuvered my way through the buzzing social media streets on Saturday, 10 June 2023, with the country up in arms in mourning and celebration of the country’s beloved fallen legend, former Bafana Bafana coach, Clive Barker. It was during this time of witnessing condolences pouring in from scores of fans, speaking so magnificently about the giant that Clive was, that I wondered if Mr Barker had any knowledge at the time, of just what a magnificent role he would play by leading the predominantly black national football team to victory of the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations as a white coach, just two years after the dawn of democracy. He was 78 years old at the time of his passing. He had left a legacy for himself not only as the man who led the national soccer team to a monumental victory but also left a gift as a man who disobeyed the apartheid laws by coaching sports teams in South Africa’s black townships, at a time when that was neither fashionable nor legal. Mr Barker’s family confirmed in a statement on 10 June 2023 that the much-celebrated legend had succumbed to his brave battle with Lewy Body Dementia (LBD). Clive had, in March of 2023, been diagnosed with the disease, before bowing out three months later.

The history of sports as a nation-building exercise

This country has a great and rich history of how sports has accelerated the unity of races post-apartheid and how the activity has inspired the renewal of hope and faith in a united society. Our first encounter with the power of sports as a nation-building tool was with the victory of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, with the national rugby team Coach, Francois Pienaar, and newly elected democratic South African President, Nelson Mandela, displaying a united front in celebration of the victory. This was a monumental moment in history, as it brought the vision of a rainbow nation to life. The idea that people of colour and whites can coexist, celebrate each other, and share victories was imperative to be displayed, to show the whole country that humanity transcends race.

We witnessed the world coming together to recognize Africa’s ability to host a world-class global sports affair, with the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosted for the first time on African soil. The spirit of unity, joy, and happiness had feverishly infected soccer fanatics and global citizens alike and presented opportunities for economic participation. Sports proved yet again that it has the power and the reach to draw the global community together.

Sports as a tool to unite and inspire

As a country, we possess a great deal of knowledge about the impact that sports activities have in inspiring and enforcing positive attitudes and behaviors for us to not look into it as a solution to the current psychosocial challenges that young people face, such as mental health challenges, the abuse of alcohol and substances, unplanned pregnancies, and the acquisition of HIV and STIs. Sporting activities promote physical health, boost confidence, empower players with the principles of teamwork and problem-solving, and keep young people away from engaging in illegal activities such as crime, gangs, and drugs.

Community development practitioners and civil society need to recognize that sports can be used as a medium to fuel sexual and reproductive health conversations and safe-sex practices. The holistic development of young people is not limited to being engaged in curricular activities, therefore introducing sports at schools as an extra-mural activity- even in general communities- supports the skills development of young people and provides a platform for young people to exhibit their non-academic abilities.

Rebuilding South African youth through sports

The power of sports also lies in creating an opportunity to realize a society that promotes the equality of the sexes. We have recently learned of the dissatisfaction expressed by South Africa’s women’s national soccer team, Banyana Banyana, as they boycotted their send-off match against Botswana on the 2nd of July 2023. Reports cited that the team’s grievances were related to the unsuitable nature of the arranged venue in Tsakane, stipulating that the field was not suitable for an international game. Reports also stated that other grievances of the team were over financial arrangements. The fight for equal recognition and pay in sports for all genders has been ongoing for a while, which again is proof of how the adequate use of sports can bridge social and economic disparities not just on a racial front but also from a gender perspective.

Our country’s young people are faced with a variety of challenges and frustrations, ranging from unemployment to a high rate of HIV and STI acquisition. It is true that we still have a long way to go as a country to realize a restored society, however, there is plenty that we can all do to actively push our country forward. Legends like the late Nelson Mandela and Clive Barker have shown us that regardless of the circumstances, success can be attained through the consistency, focus, and discipline that sports offer. I implore all active and productive citizens to take heart and take it upon themselves to support our national sports teams such as Banyana Banyana in the upcoming 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and youth sports development initiatives. Donating time to coaching and mentoring young people in your community, sharing youth sports initiatives on social media platforms, attending local youth sports tournaments, and financially supporting these initiatives will help push the agenda of the restoration of South African youth forward.



Afrika Tikkun:

The African Sports and Scholastic initiative for students in townships:

My SAFA (Banyana Banyana):


About the author:

Nontsikelelo “Ntsiki” Khunju is a member of ACTIVATE! Change Drivers writers hub, she is a content creator, narrator, and spoken word artist.

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