African and the 2010 World Cup

What does it mean for Africa as a whole for hosting the 2010 World Cup?

It’s now an accepted fact that South Africa will successfully host the World Cup in 2010, the world’s biggest sporting showcase. Even the naysayers have been slowly won over.

The world’s football authority, Fifa, after watching South Africa successfully host the Confederations Cup, stated that South Africa, on a scale of 1-10, rates highly. Rated 7.5/10, only a catastrophic event, say a natural disaster like an earthquake or the outbreak of war, will force the relocation of the World Cup from South Africa.

It’s natural, then, that the debate has moved from whether South Africa will host the Cup to what hosting the football showpiece will do to South Africa and, by extension, the rest of the continent.

From the beginning, South Africa’s bid was always couched in tones of African solidarity that would have resonated with the rest of the continent. Indeed, the country’s bid committee courted some of the continent’s greatest football players. Zambia’s Kalusha Bwalya, Ghana’s Abedi Pele, Liberia’s George Weah- easily the greatest player to come from the continent- were roped in as ambassadors to buoy up South Africa’s bid.

The South African bid’s catch phrase “it’s Africa’s turn”- undermined by black on black xenophobic violence last year- wasn’t empty rhetoric. It did help South Africa’s prospects that its closest competitor, Morocco, isn’t part of the African Union and used its proximity to Europe to slyly entice the European vote.

The South African bid also neatly fitted into Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance project. South African researcher Justin van der Merwe writes in Development and Dreams (HSRC Press), a recently published book, that the bid was “consistent with a pattern of foreign policy initiatives” initiated by Mbeki. “The overall ‘African Safari’ motif of the tournament…sought to stamp a uniquely ‘Africanised’ version of a game bequeathed on former colonies by British imperialism.”

There’s a realization that the World Cup may not bring much economic benefits to the country. Australia based Scholar Richard Tomlinson, in the same book, argues that Mbeki’s “primary concern in hosting the World Cup was less with economic returns than with reducing Afro-pessimism by showing that Africa can do it”.

The 2010 world cup will avail an opportunity to Africa-for long the face of disease, poverty and war- to move out of the straitjacket of the failed continent. What will be on show is not the usual stories of misery and pain. Up to a million visitors will visit South Africa and other countries in the region and experience its cultural diversity and its various tourist destinations; billions more will watch the matches live. The Africa in the world’s glare won’t be the Africa that is usually evoked whenever a story about Africa comes up in the west.

Indeed, Fifa president has said- in tones rather reminiscent of Albert Schweitzer’s statement: “the African is my brother, but he is my younger brother- that the cup’s legacy will be communally shared by the rest of Africa. “The other legacy is for the whole of Africa. We want them to be proud and be able to say “we Africans have organized the world’s most important sporting event: the FIFA World Cup”.

Then wading cautiously into murky Afro pessimist waters, Blatter stated that “we have to trust in the African’ ability to organize the competition. Trust will give them confidence. If they have confidence, they will be better in the future, not only as footballers, but as organizers”.

On a continent dogged by war and disease, dictatorships that preside over poverty, a successful world cup will swell the hearts of those who love and live on the continent.

Like the Cricket World Cup in 2003, co-hosted with Kenya and Zimbabwe, South Africa is keen to show that this football festival isn’t only South Africa’s. It belongs to the whole region and continent. Indeed, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and other neighboring countries have taken advantage and are keen to rake in the millions of dollars likely to come their way. They are investing millions of dollars to spruce up their stadiums and hotels to lure visitors into their borders.

The hosting of the World Cup is certain to bequeath state of the art sporting infrastructure for a close knit region. It will also make southern Africa an attractive destination for tourists. The southern tip of the continent has, since the 1970s, being the site of endless violence. In the 1970s it was the anti-colonialist wars in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe; the 1980s were marked by civil wars in those same countries while South Africa was in a bitter violence as the black majority fought for democracy. In the 1990s it was black on black on violence in South Africa and the long running war in Angola which ended with the death of Jonas Savimbi in 2002.
Zimbabwe, the country to the north of South Africa, was, for almost decade, plagued by a meltdown that all but destroyed its infrastructure, driving a substantial portion of it population into exile. As 2010 beckoned, there was an increased urgency to bring Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirayi, the two main protagonists, to negotiate. There was a realization that an unstable Zimbabwe would besmirch the rest of the region and, crucially, tamper with South Africa’s suitability as a host country. Zimbabwe is making its first tentative steps as it emerges from the years of seclusion.

The region, already yoked together by the nationalist and anti-colonialist camaraderie of days gone past, will inch ever so closer in its transport, communications and other areas.

The last world cup in Germany, according to Fifa’s statistics, was watched by a “total cumulative audience of 26.29 billion people”. For a long time the world’s eyes had its eyes trained on the continent, but it was not watching the good stuff. It was the outbreak of war in Ivory Coast; the child soldiers in Liberia; the suffering of women and children in Sudan; or the millions who have perished in Democratic Republic of Congo. For the first time in a long while many eyes will be watching an African country hosting the world’s biggest sporting event.

Even if no African country gets to the finals, just hosting the event will announce to the world the continent’s competitiveness. Like Germany in 2006, Japan and South Korea in 2002, France in 1998, USA in 1994 and Italy in 1990, South Africa will also claim a place on the high table of successful host countries.

Well said.

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