Today is perhaps the most pertinent day of the year to be writing about the opportunities, beauties and unities in Africa. Today I am not just a white male South African; I am a proud and optimistic African. Later today, I will paint a black star on my face and join thousands of South Africans as we cheer the Ghanaian ‘Black Stars’ to victory in their quarter final playoff against Uruguay in Johannesburg for the FIFA 2010 World Cup. Millions of Africans will cheer on the only African representatives left in the tournament. Today, all of Africa can briefly forget about poverty, UN loans, HIV & AIDS, the scramble for Africa, tyranny, oppression and other evils that dwell on the continent. Today the simple game of football will unite an entire continent’s ambitions behind one team.
Indeed, the World Cup tournament united Africans. Borders, disputes and politics were rendered irrelevant by the pride and strength of united African identification. Every African flag was waved for Ghana. The European Union may feel that their progress in regulating border control and currency exchange is something to be proud of but you will never see a Frenchman rooting for an Englishman. The Ghanaian team and its supporters are a ‘black star’ in a constellation of critical and precarious ‘white stars’. It seems international sports events have the power to transcend the usual boundaries and to unite Africans in a way few other things can. Out of one single black star, millions more have erupted. Today we can show the world what it means to be African as we band together under one flag. This is the true beauty of football and of the World Cup in Africa; that we can sing and dance together and place a continent’s ambitions and dreams in the hands of eleven men. When Ghana played, we knew no other flag and we could forget for just a moment about Africa’s woes and enjoy a beautiful football game. That is the exquisite contribution of the World Cup to Africa.
Beyond the balance sheet
Of course there are many criticisms of FIFA and other institutions’ involvement in Africa. “The traditional notion of national sovereignty is irrelevant when bodies like FIFA, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank use governments to advance their own objects, which in FIFAs case is to further its profits,” says Sophie Nakueira, a University of Cape Town academic researching the impact of global mega-events on governance and human rights.(2) Writing on South Africa, the World Cup and neo-colonialism in China Daily, O.P. Rana asks: “Will the World Cup break the colonial myth that Africa is an ‘inherently impaired darker section’ of the human race? Will it release the post-colonial Western stranglehold on the continent? Will it stop the pillage of Africa, which began in the 16th century and continues to this day? Will it restore Africa to its pristine environmental past?”(3) Of course the answer is ‘no’ and we can not expect FIFA to alleviate African or South African problems. The roles and influence of international institutions in Africa’s wellbeing will always remain debatable.
Many people also question South Africa’s real financial benefits from the tournament, but some things simply cannot be recorded on a balance sheet. Besides the fact that the country has become caught up in a complete football frenzy, the World Cup has afforded us the opportunity to change perceptions and stereotypes of Africa. Africa is more than just Mugabe, poverty and war or bizarre looking natives that build pyramids among giant mammals. (And no, there aren’t any elephants or lions walking the streets!) Much research points to the fact that global tournaments bring limited revenue to the country,(4) but there is a certain legacy that will be left in South Africa and Africa as a whole. Besides the developed transport infrastructure and football academies, there is something of a lot more value, felt by all South Africans when Bafana Bafana beat France and almost scraped through to the next round. All the pessimists and the staunch white rugby fans that have refused to let football into their hearts until 2010 had green and gold souls when we beat France. Prior to the World Cup, headlines were cautious and critical, but I have yet to read a recent critical article or report on Bafana Bafana’s performance. I have seen the harmony that was created and still exists as we show the world that our cities match London and Budapest, our festivities match those of Brazil and our love of football is like no other.
Once the first tournament whistle had blown, every South African temporarily forgot about the issues rampant behind closed doors as we enjoyed the privilege of watching the World Cup in our own backyards, despite the bribes, bureaucracy and scandals prior to the event. IMF and World Bank interventions bring little enjoyment to African people, but at least FIFA brought us football and more: a gift of irreplaceable unity that was much needed in South Africa and Africa. Terre ‘Blanche’s murder and mounting racial tension, as well as ludicrous alarmist reports in foreign media about catastrophes, disasters and safety in South Africa were all forgotten with the blow of the first vuvuzela. The unity that the FIFA World Cup brought to South Africa is a gift, not only because it resembles the unity that the Rugby World Cup gave the country in 1995, but also because the country’s citizens are much more prepared to receive the gift of unity and to optimise it.
South Africa has 44,000 new police members that will tackle the country’s rapidly climbing crime rates after the World Cup.(5) Restaurants and local night life have picked up and the ‘fan parks’ are still full despite the fact that South Africa are no longer in the tournament. South Africans are still supporting the World Cup because they want to show the world that we can host the best World Cup that has ever been played, and we can do it in the ‘dark jungles’ of Africa which have been shown to be vibrant and festive, instead of gloomy and cheerless.
May the pride continue!
Ghana may have lost, but we are still proudly African. What is it about Africans that transcends borders and flags into continental patriotism? This African ‘continentalism’ is perhaps spurred on by the fact that we have been shoved into the dark corners of global politics and economics. Perhaps it is because of the evils and tyrannies of colonialism that Africans feel a common need to band together and support each other. African leaders are constantly driving a Pan-African movement which aims to liberate us from occidental orthodoxies and global injustices. Most native Indian tongues and cultures have been destroyed or suppressed in Latin America yet in Africa, we have somehow managed to, even if by our finger tips, hold onto our cultures, beliefs, tongues and natural beauty. Africans have been put through gauntlets of terror and oppression in all corners of the continent; many still live in poverty and squalor. Through the passion and pride it incites and reignites, the World Cup affords the people of the continent a valuable chance to remember its roots, its pride and its resilience, as well as the value of a united spirit.
(1) Alex Kaminski is an External Consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Eyes on Africa Series (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Tolsi, N. ‘FIFA called the shots and we said yes.’ Mail and Guardian, 4 June 2010. http://www.mg.co.za.
(3) Rana, O. P. “Africa, World Cup and neo-colonialism, 11 June 2010. http://www.chinadaily.com
(4) Goldblatt, D. ‘Footing South Africa’s World Cup Bill.’ BBC News, 4 June 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(5) Hoffman, R. Pillay, V. & Van Wyk, L. ‘The Cup Half Full.’ Mail & Guardian, 1 July 2010. http://2010.mg.co.za.