OPINION | We should praise them more before they die
Former president Thabo Mbeki once said “the days pass, each year giving birth to its successor. What has passed becomes the past as time erodes the memory of what was living experience”.
The passage of time, which coincides with the erosion of memory, is hard on the likes of the late South African soccer legend Phil Masinga, who died on Sunday.
Their heroic feats fade until the next generation of children hears about them in their obituaries.
Once their caskets hit the ground memory wanes again and the embarrassment of enthusiastic riches moves on to another star.
A chilly wind blows as the roar of 80,000 spectators – which they were accustomed to at the peak of their careers – fades.
The same chill is felt as they lose their assets because they can no longer generate the same income as when they could lighten the mood of the whole nation with a single kick.
The year Phil Masinga scored the historic goal that took South Africa to the World Cup in France is the very same year I was born.
He went on to play his last game in 2001, when I was only four years old.
The historian in me had a particular interest in tracking the lives of the 1996 African Cup of Nations winning team in comparison to the 1995 Rugby World Cup team, and that is where I first came across the life of Phil Masinga and what he has done for South African football fraternity.
In particular he was loved for how he enabled Lucas Radebe to be signed by Leeds United. They were the first black South African expatriates to grace the hallowed fields of Elland Road at the dawn of our democratic dispensation in 1994, inspiring a large number of South African footballers, who were still plying their trade on our shores in a league that was barely professional at the time.
Among the biographical tributes that will fill the media space resembling a quick read of a Wikipedia article, a reflection should be made about the lives of black sports figures (especially footballers) and the reasons that our stars, who lifted the aspirations of the whole nation, fade so quickly and languish in obscurity in comparison to their white counterparts plying their trades in rugby and cricket.
Prevailing beliefs that stem from centuries of colonial stereotyping would most likely inform you that these footballers blew their money on fast cars and nightclubs, as Johann Rupert might say.
But I believe it is more structural. The way we look down on these stars in their time of need and later retrieve their memory again after they’ve taken their last breath is the same way we do not support our locally produced goods, much to the dismay of Brand South Africa.
The last days of the great Phil Masinga must have been filled with memories of moments long since gone, in tandem with visions of what the future could have been – a future that may have restored the glory days disappearing on the horizon of the past, while in the present he could at least still recapture the roars that echoed after he sent us to the World Cup for the first time in our history.
But while he may or may not have had that personal battle with time, the true legacy of a person can only be measured by the impact they have on the coming generations.
As a man who is not his contemporary I am deeply moved by the life he has lived, and it seems to me that he has not died but multiplied.
There is an isiXhosa idiom that goes emva kwengcwaba imali nemfundo ayingeni ndawo, meaning that we are all naked and equal before the inevitability of death.
It is through contesting time’s constant war on memory that we can honour him best – by ensuring that his great work is never forgotten.
It would have been better if the current tributes to the man had poured in while he could still read them and be warmed by the praise flowing from all corners of the globe.
Rest in peace, Philemon “Chippa” Masinga.
You will always be carved in our memories.
Asemahle Gwala, a political science student, is Sasco deputy chair at the Claude Qavane campus of Nelson Mandela University..