Do sharing words of hope and unity create the reality of togetherness?

Big for an underdog team in the world of rugby; big for togetherness in a troubled nation; even bigger than 1995 – these sentiments and headlines describe the Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup the past weekend.

“In a country that struggles with real difficulties, that needs unity, this victory shows that together we can achieve anything,” said our enigmatic Springbok captain and coach, Siyamthanda Kolisi and Rassie Erasmus.

Francois Pienaar, our celebrated 1995 World Cup-winning captain, declared the victory more important than the one a year after our first democratic election in 1994.

“This is bigger because it is a transformed team, (with) 58 million people watching in South Africa, and all races would have woken up wearing green,” Pienaar said.

However, not everyone shares these sentiments. Several commentators critique the claims of a transformed team and a South Africa united in support of the national side.

Referring to continued racial dynamics in the sporting code, the claimed racist incidents involving Springbok players, and the increasing racial and social distances that plague South African society, critics question the validity and wisdom of public messages that declare the Springbok victory a symbol of South African unity and togetherness.

Even if the captain and coach make statements to show the team appreciate the reality of the struggles that everyday South Africans live with, their attempt at being a symbol of hope does not represent reality, critics claim. The relationship between “language and reality” is an important question that underlies the social dynamics of how people make sense of symbolic public events. In its most basic form this question asks if language “creates” reality, by changing our perspective on it, or “mirrors” reality, by describing and mapping what we perceive as the facts of the world around us.

So, for instance, one may ask: do a diversified team and the captain’s claim that the whole country backed the Springboks mirror or create a reality of togetherness? Language as a human activity is our primary medium of sense-making.

We use “basic” words to describe individual experiences in rich detail, such as Kolisi’s story of struggle to rise from boyhood to be the first black Springbok captain. We describe shared experiences in “broader” terms, such as the traumas shared and heard to heal a nation at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the birth of our democracy.

And, we use more “generic” terms to name categories of experiences we consider critical to make sense of together, such as national projects to achieve social cohesion. Different ways of making sense of symbolic public events often relate to these categories of language we use to read messages about the reality we perceive. However, core features of what we understand reconciliation to be run across the different ways of naming, relating and debating it – features that are “prototypes” of diverse experiences of a theme of our lives, such as for reconciliation.

Cross-racial togetherness, shared aspirations and hopefulness may represent prototype features of what we consider reconciliation in the South African context – features of reconciliation one may observe across individual and shared experiences, and in public discourses on symbolic events. Reading for prototype features of national unity and hope allows you to connect individual and community experiences of societal transformation, and symbolic instances wanting to serve that goal.

Recognising similarities in how we describe moments of togetherness enable public events to become “exemplars” of the reality we want to create and mirror.

* Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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