Africa's World Cup?

On the eve of Ghana’s fateful loss to Uruguay in the quarterfinals, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, declared them the Black Stars of Africa. Locals joined their compatriots across the continent in willing the Black Stars on.  When Uruguayan gamesmanship prevailed in the end, the disappointment seemed genuine. Even Nelson Mandela sent “a message of condolence” to Asamoah Gyan, the Ghana forward, who missed the dramatic penalty at the end of extra time. (Ghana eventually lost on penalties.)
But that momentary continental unity masks more sinister developments at play in South Africa.

I was in South Africa for the first week or so of the tournament and one thing that struck me, apart from the fickleness of South African fans in supporting their own national team when its down, was the cold reception for African teams. I can only speak for Cape Town where I traveled to see some first round matches — I scored tickets to 3 matches in the end–but friends and contacts confirmed my observations.In the earlier rounds local fans cared little for continental teams, including Ghana, opting to support the “traditional powerhouse” teams instead. By that I mean the stronger European sides like Germany, France, and Italy with records of success in the World Cup, or even weaker, over-hyped sides, like England.  The same was true for Argentina and Brazil.

You could argue that local fans — who make up the bulk of those at stadiums — were just being realistic. (Confession: I favored Brazil and Argentina to win the whole thing.)  But these loyalties are also a function of television (the English Premier League and European Champions League dominate football broadcasts on local TV) or due to the poor organization of the continental leagues (with the exception of Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps South Africa, national leagues on the continent are quite weak, players are badly paid, stadiums are dilapidated, and the quality of refereeing is way below even the World Cup standards.)  I find no problem with those explanations.
But I think there are other, more compelling explanations.  South Africans are  uncomfortable about their continental identity, the “Ghana revenge” moment notwithstanding.  As an acquaintance probed: “Do [South Africans] think they belong elsewhere and just happen to be in the wrong continent?” I can’t count how many odd looks I got for variously wearing a Ghana or Cameroon beanie hat or jacket in a mall, or for wearing my Algeria scarf to the latter’s game with England. Finding paraphernalia of any other African team apart from South Africa proved quite a mission.

A Cape Town-based writer, in an email to me, suggested a reason for this:
I perceive an indifference to African [football] stars for certain. I see more Ronaldinho jerseys [Ronaldinho was not even in Brazil’s World Cup squad] than I see [Samuel] Eto’o ones and while I do see a fair amount of support for the big powers, its Brazil overwhelmingly. I perceive a color dimension to it as well as a tendency of the poor to support winners. I suspect the idea of brown skinned creolized Brazilians (although many of the current team are dark skinned) is appealing to brown skinned South Africans [he is referring to coloureds] that feel only a tenuous connection to Africa.

Ekapa, a regular commenter on my blog, Africa is a Country, wrote to me about his recent travels to Johannesburg. He noted the annoyance of  middle class black and white South Africans with the idea that this was “Africa’s World Cup,” despite the fact that this was the basis on which FIFA awarded the competition to South Africa.


Second, and perhaps more sinister, are the high levels of xenophobia against other Africans displayed by South Africans. Nigerians especially come in for the bulk of the abuse.But what was shocking was the persistent rumors I heard of threatened attacks on African migrants once the World Cup is over. These have been given credence by news reports, the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s recent statement, and Desmond Tutu’s decision to publicly condemn such potential violence. In some shack settlements armed police have already been deployed to monitor tensions between locals and migrants.Such anxieties are not unfounded. In a frenzy of violence in May 2008 in shack dweller communities and poor black townships around South Africa at least 70 people were murdered and about 100,000 left homeless when locals attacked anyone they perceived of being a foreigner.
Two examples from my trip: My brother told me colleagues at the suburban factory where he works in Cape Town openly talk about planned attacks against non-South African black Africans once the World Cup is over. When he challenged them about this, they showed no shame.
Likewise, a friend, an anthropologist doing research with Angolan migrants in Cape Town, told me of a number of instances where plans to attack foreigners were discussed–in one case, prompting a series of meetings by refugee/migrant representatives and local community leaders to discuss how best to respond to these threats.   In another case, one of the anthropologist’s interviewees was told to her face that “we’ll get you after the World Cup.”
Ekapa also wrote: that I “in the working class and poor suburb of Alexandria [located next to South Africa’s richest suburb, Sandton] I heard a lot of resentment expressed about how Nigerian and Zimbabwean hawkers were benefiting from an event that was put on using South African money.” Locals spoke of how African migrants were using the World Cup to “stay on after the games were over.”
“I overhead several conversations where the speakers felt that they needed to make it clear that after the World Cup was over foreigners from Africa – makwerekwere or ‘Nigerians’ as migrants are invariably called – were not welcome to stay.”
Ekapa concluded:
“… I’m afraid the post World Cup ‘morning after’ may not be pretty. The event was sold as an occasion that would benefit South Africa economically and in terms of how the world perceives it. No economic benefits have materialized, particularly for the poor and working class, and judging from the World Cup [TV commercials] and the non-football writing [in local newspapers] there hasn’t been much of a shift in perception [about African immigrants and refugees]. The party is glamorous and successful but in its aftermath the hard and drab everydayness of life may even seem more depressing and unleash the demons that haunt us all.”

Let’s hope this is all just a rumor.
Sean Jacobs, born in South Africa, teaches international affairs at the New School in Manhattan. He blogs at Africa is a Country.
Photo by Kwame Nyong’o

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