Kevin Anderson: who gets to be South African?

Kevin Anderson, a South African citizen, defeated John Isner 26-24 in the final set of the Wimbledon Men’s semi-final yesterday, in what ended up being the second-longest ever match at Wimbledon. (Isner won the longest match, back in 2010, when he beat Nicholas Mahut 70-68 in the final set.)

Does Anderson’s victory make him the first South African to reach the singles finals at Wimbledon? No, it doesn’t, regardless of how you classify Kevin Curren, defeated by Boris Becker in the 1985 final. Does Anderson’s victory beg(gar) the question of who gets to be called “South African”? No, it doesn’t – but it does perhaps raise the question.

To be clear: none of what I say here is intended to minimise Anderson’s victory, or to dent anyone’s patriotic fervour. I’m just curious about how people define nationality and nationhood, and whether they do so consistently, which was the point I was trying to make last night when posting this:

Before addressing the primary issue of who gets to be South African, a quick note of correction for those who think that Anderson is South African and regard him as the first citizen to reach the singles finals: we’ve had two South African Wimbledon finalists in the past. Brian Norton lost to Bill Tilden in the 1921 finals, and Sarah Reynolds lost to Maria Bueno in 1960.

Anderson is a South African citizen. While he has taken up permanent residence in the USA, I haven’t seen anything to indicate that he intends to give up his citizenship, and he has represented SA in both the Olympics and the Davis Cup. If, as one user replied to me on Twitter, all you care about is which flag is next to someone’s name, Anderson is a South African.

What about Curren, Coetzee, Elon Musk, Zola Budd, Kevin Pietersen, Sydney Maree and countless others? Without the fixed identifier of citizenship, you need to pick some other criterion or criteria to define “South African” – and the way people do this seems to be entirely subjective, and perhaps also inconsistent.

Even though Curren had become a US citizen by the time of his loss to Becker, SA History describes him as South African, and he was captain of the South African Davis Cup team after retiring as a player. If Elon Musk didn’t display the antipathy towards South Africa that he does, I’d imagine many more SA people would happy “claim” him, regardless of his citizenship. Kevin Pietersen is a dislikable figure, so he’s certainly English. Right?

Nobel Prizes are desirable things for a nation to have, which could lead to some claiming J.M. Coetzee – with some Australians perhaps doing the same.  (Coincidentally, I was reading a piece earlier today that discusses the “convoluted” sentences of “Gordimer’s fellow South African and fellow Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee”.)

As I wrote in a far more serious piece than this one, an émigré writer like Czesław Miłosz is probably regarded as Polish by many Poles, even though he died (in Poland) as a US citizen.

We seem to pick based on whatever we choose to regard as significant, and perhaps even to change our minds when the fortunes of individuals change, or when characters become less or more likeable.

And that’s fine – I’m not making a grand point here, nor trying to undermine anyone’s patriotism. But for those of you who care about making the same judgments in relevantly similar cases, the question of how we ascribe nationality offers an opportunity to perform a self-audit for consistency, and that’s typically a good thing to do.

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By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.