The World Cup II: Bafana Bafana

[Part 2 of a 3 part series on the lead up to the World Cup. Read the first part here.]
Soccer’s history in South Africa, and perhaps on the continent at large, began in 1862, when British sailors, soldiers, and bureaucrats organized a match in Cape Town. Consistent with its British public school origins, soccer in South Africa was initially a game of the colonizing classes. Like cricket and rugby, the sport was used to nurture an imperialist ethos of mannered masculinity amongst British youth, imperial servants, and privileged colonial subjects. Over time, rugby evolved into the sport most closely associated with Afrikaner nationalism, while cricket remained largely a game of British elites. Soccer, meanwhile, was embraced by black South Africans, who transformed the game from a tool of imperialist power to a key site of anticolonial resistance.
Intensive industrialization around the turn of the twentieth century facilitated the mass migration of South African blacks to urban centers such as Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town. In rapidly growing townships — later delineated by apartheid polices of urban control, such as the Group Areas Act (1950) — soccer became the sport of the black working class, a vehicle for self-organization that encouraged new forms of political identification.1 By the middle of the twentieth century, soccer, once promoted by colonial authorities as a means to cultivate and pacify the natives, was contributing to the growth of African nationalism and anti-apartheid consciousness more broadly. In 1961, a group of entrepreneurs — Indian, colored (mixed-race), and black — created the South African Soccer League (SASL), a non-racial professional league that achieved instant and immense popularity. Across divisions of ethnicity and class, supporters showed up in great and jubilant numbers to witness and testify to the possibility of a more cosmopolitan South Africa. The apartheid regime responded by prohibiting the SASL from using municipal playing fields, and in 1966 the league was forced to disband, only five years after its founding.2
Elsewhere on the continent, soccer was playing a critical role in Africa’s nascent post-colonial involvement with the world. Le Confédération Africaine de Soccer (CAF), formed in 1957, provided a stage upon which newly liberated nations could assert their identity and make claims for global recognition. Buttressed by the pan-African rhetoric of CAF, which by 1960 had grown to nine members from its original five, countries such as Ghana and Algeria entered the arena of international soccer, expressing at once, with foot and ball, cultural uniqueness and universal belonging. Though a founding member, South Africa was officially banned from CAF in 1958, for failing to abide the organization’s antidiscrimination clauses. CAF pressured FIFA to follow suit, and in 1961 South Africa was suspended from soccer’s international governing body, before being formally expelled in 1976, after the Soweto Uprising. In 1992, with the dissolution of apartheid underway, and following the formation of a multiracial national soccer federation, South Africa rejoined CAF and FIFA. Acknowledging this history, in his speech to the FIFA Executive Committee in 2004, Mbeki credited “the important role that FIFA played in the international struggle against apartheid, to ensure that our people, both black and white, attain freedom, democracy, peace and reconciliation.”3
FIFA’s marginalization of South Africa, in connection with other international boycotts of South African sport, did contribute to the downfall of apartheid. Mbeki’s words, however, obscured more than they revealed about the complex history of FIFA in Africa. Though espousing the rhetoric of “global fraternity” from the moment of its foundation in 1904, for much of the twentieth century FIFA’s approach toward Africa was guided by the paternalistic conceit that football was good for the natives, who with the right tutelage could be acclimated to the culture of the enlightened modern. Sir Stanley Rous, president of the International Federation from 1961 to 1974, once described the coaching and refereeing programs administered by FIFA in Africa and South America as “general missionary work.”4 If the missionary zeal of the organization is rather more muted today, the colonialist origins of its worldly disposition are still evident. Though the “civilizing” potential of the game is no longer explicitly invoked, FIFA — its president Sepp Blatter in particular — has narrated South Africa’s hosting of the tournament as the fruition of its own continent-wide development initiatives.5 The thinly veiled implication is that bringing the tournament to South Africa is confirmation of FIFA’s universalizing project, which is still understood by the International Federation to emanate from Europe to the world.
In the sixteen years since rejoining CAF and FIFA, “Bafana Bafana,” as South Africa’s national soccer team is affectionately known, have experienced minor successes and greater disappointments on the international stage — winning the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations (ACN) and qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups; failing to make it past the group stages of both the 2004 and 2006 ACN; and failing to qualify at all for the 2006 World Cup and 2010 ACN. After “Bafana Bafana” — Zulu for “the boys the boys” — failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, Mbeki noted the dismal state of the national side in his State of the Union address, pledging to establish a presidential commission to monitor the team’s preparations for 2010. Recently, prominent social theorist Achille Mbembe — who is Cameroonian but lives and works in South Africa — has called the dire form of Bafana Bafana a “national emergency”: “If the current downward spiral persists,” he warns, “the nation’s performance in 2010 will be . . . a source of shame and humiliation for the entire continent.”6 The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has expressed similar alarm at the state of Bafana Bafana. In articulating a series of demands related to South African workers and 2010, the trade union federation offered a forceful condemnation of the national soccer set-up: “[We] reiterate our deep concern at the free-fall of the standards of South African soccer. . . . [A]ll of us can see the disaster that is waiting to happen in the 2010 World Cup competition.”7
Reflecting the social history of soccer in South Africa, black players make up nearly the entire Bafana Bafana squad. The team is not, however, defined by one style of play, but rather performs a synthesis of indigenous and British styles: one aesthetic manifestation of the nation’s colonial history. This neat dialectic of colonial and indigenous cultural forms — as enacted on the field of play — is slightly complicated by the fact that Bafana Bafana are currently managed by a Brazilian, Carlos Alberto Perriera. Following Bafana Bafana’s April training camp in Brazil, Parriera insisted that his side had begun to find their shape. But he also intimated that his players struggle to keep possession of the ball, noting that the soccer played in South Africa — in particular within the Premier Soccer League (PSL), where most Bafana players ply their craft — “tends to be like table tennis at times, with the ball being kicked forward and back just like that.” Though in search of a positive inflection, Parriera affirmed the assumption that Bafana Bafana lack stylistic fluency. “We are not saying we will be like Barcelona” — the club side whose fluid passing game is without equal in world football — “but we don’t want to be like a table tennis team.”8 These are not words that will inspire confidence in Bafana Bafana’s ability to bear the expectations of a nation and indeed a continent come June.
With soccer success improbable, and with financial reward uncertain — while the host nation provides the bulk of the financial outlay, FIFA absorbs the lion’s share (nearly 80 percent, in 20069) of the revenue generated by the tournament — for South Africa the success of 2010 will ultimately be judged on whether the event improves the nation’s, and by extension Africa’s, image in the world. On whether, that is, it fundamentally challenges the extant notion that Africa has nothing to contribute to the universal comity of nations. In overcoming apartheid, South Africa imagined itself as the privileged exponent of a new global humanism. Highlighting the country’s economic vitality, political stability, and multicultural exuberance, this June and July South Africa wants to show that its local experiment in non-racial democracy is a beacon for the entire planet. The task is a difficult one.
[Image caption: Kids play soccer in South Africa.]

Eli Jelly-Schapiro