JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Many obsessions bitterly divide the people of South Africa. But not cricket.
In the midst of transition and tragedy, thousands of South Africans took to the streets Friday to celebrate an end to isolation and the birth of national pride. They turned out to welcome their national cricket team from an international tour that signaled South Africa's acceptance into the world of sports again.
Johannesburg rolled out the red carpet for the players, giving them a ticker-tape parade and huge rally on the steps of City Hall. They were welcomed as a source of pride, goodwill and unity in a country that is going through painful times.
"Today is the first time I've seen something like this," said Simon Martin, a black South African who works as a painter for a downtown company. "No fighting. No wrongs. Everyone is happy."
"I think we're only realizing now how much the isolation hurt us," said David Pells, a white salesman who took the day off to attend the celebration. "I've spent most of my life being isolated, so for me this is brand-new."
Foreign Minister Pik Botha told about 5,000 revelers at City Hall that the team had brought "dignity and pride to all South Africans. They have made a major contribution toward bringing South Africans together."
To the cricketers, who were returning from a two-month World Cup tour, he said, "You have brought South Africa into international sports and acceptability. You have instilled and engendered a feeling of new national pride in all of us."
Most of the players on the World Cup team are white because cricket, a popular game in Britain and its former colonies, is a not a sport played by many black South Africans. But the tens of thousands who lined the parade route and crowded into the City Hall square were from all of the country's racial groups.
"Our country is going through such a troublesome time that we need something positive like this," said Derryn Brokensha, a white office worker who described herself as "South African born and bred. We're all mingling peacefully here."
South Africa had been banned from international sports for more than two decades because of its apartheid policy, which installed a system of racial segregation and repression that resulted in separate sports teams for blacks and whites.
But bans have been lifted over the past year as the country reformed its political system. After months of negotiations, the nation's racially separate sports governing bodies have been unifed.
Aziz Pahad of the African National Congress, which has been instrumental in sports unification, said sports had the potential to unite South Africans.
"For once everybody supported the country, black and white," he said. "But we must move to a situation where the team actually reflects the population as we know it. People are beginning to understand that the racial differences don't matter in sports."
The celebration allowed South Africans to put aside briefly their concerns about the country's political future and about the ongoing problems of violence and crime.
Office workers on terraces threw confetti down onto the parade. A military helicopter dumped balloons and confetti onto the cheering crowd at City Hall.
"We haven't had this for many decades," said Ali Bacher, the Indian head of the United Cricket Board of South Africa. "This country's had too much despair, too much unhappiness. We need to celebrate good occasions."
The South African team upset Australia, the World Cup favorite, and finished the first round with a 5-3 record to advance to the semifinals. The South Africans then lost to England in a rain-shortened match.