Reflections on the African World Cup: ‘make the circle bigger’
Consultant, Institute for Security Studies, Tshwane, South Africa
Almost two weeks after the end of the 2010 soccer World Cup in my home country, I still struggle to articulate the various strong emotions awakened by this tournament.
After many questions and doubts about South Africa’s ability to play host, we now look back to what goes on record as a very successfully hosted World Cup (9/10 according to FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s ratio). However, I believe it is important to evaluate the tournament by examining the extent to which South Africa succeeded in not only hosting the World Cup, but also by evaluating the extent to which South Africa hosted the tournament for the rest of Africa. Overall, the World Cup signaled Africa’s readiness to be taken more seriously as a global partner. Simply put, the tournament espoused the need and urgency to ‘make the circle bigger.’
I observed the events leading up to the tournament, in particular, the magnificent success of the “Football Fridays” organized by the Local Organizing Committee. Every Friday, South Africans put on their Bafana Bafana jerseys, matched by multiple South African flags on their cars and homes. I marveled at the seductive nature of nationalism. After hardening years of democratic consolidation with several political scandals on the South African scene, one couldn’t help wondering whether the flair which has always surrounded the South African nation building effort had returned to excite and unite the nation once again. But, I am personally suspicious of giving an event such as this one the heavy weight of uniting a whole country, and I question whether the country needs unifying in the first place. I would argue that the success of the tournament excited all South Africans across racial and class lines, all of them proud of the country’s ability to exceed expectations. For the first time, one could spot groups of white middle-class South Africans wearing Bafana jerseys and blowing vuvuzelas, in support of South African football. Further, these same groups wore other African football jerseys and cheered for Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and others – all in hope and support for an African country to win the gold. This all despite the nay-sayers (largely white middle-class South Africans) who swore blindly prior to the World Cup that South Africa would never be ready in time to host a successful tournament mid-2010.
However, issues that affected South Africans before and post-World Cup - those of high levels of poverty and those of high rates of crime - remain. Unless these daily challenges change, one can expect that the same fiery reactions from Black and White South Africa that dominated in the pre-World Cup South Africa will continue to do so in the post-World Cup South Africa, especially the articulation of these national challenges through racial lenses.
Additionally, the current fears of the eruption of xenophobic attacks by South Africans against other African nationals demonstrate the simple reality that the reconciliation sentiments of a sporting mega-event can easily be overtaken by the bread and butter issues of poverty. Yet, considering the unity South Africans clearly felt with the rest of the African continent during the World Cup, not only evident through wearing South African and other African jerseys and flags, but also considering the majority of visitors to South Africa during the World Cup were in fact from other parts of Africa, one must ask how justified the threat of xenophobic attacks really is.
With that said, what I see as the message of the tournament for all of us is carried in a simply sung South African Kwaito song by JR called “make the circle bigger.” This song was used by the cell phone company Vodacom to pledge support to Bafana Bafana with a dance known as the ‘Show dem Bafana.’ As popular as Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’ and K’naan’s ‘Wavin’ Flag,’ the song ruled the fan parks in the country. The sentiments of the song are simple - that we must make the circle bigger so that everyone can join in the fun. I see the successful hosting of the World Cup as a demonstration of Africa’s readiness to be taken more seriously in all realms of the international socio-political and economic community. It is a call to take Africa more seriously in terms of investment, to recognize the achievements of the African development state, despite the presence of several challenges, as well as recognition of a unique ‘African’ civilization that has been able to celebrate diversity by extracting the best from different parts of the world, while maintaining a unique identity. I see it as an overall call to include Africa more – to make the circle big enough to fit all the unique identities of the 54 African countries and peoples – not just South Africa. This is not only the responsibility of the international community, but also the responsibility of South Africa and Africa to work together as a region and be recognized for the true value the continent holds.