World Cup, Africa’s bleeding hearts, and painful memories

Wednesday July 7 2010

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

I am glad I came to South Africa during the World Cup. It has helped me appreciate the meaning of the World Cup to the South and, at a wider level, Africa in ways I never would have.

The World Cup South Africa is a very different country than the one I knew just a few months ago. The dramatic infrastructure investment, the new and refurbished airports, the marvellously flag-coloured drive from Oliver Tambo International airport in Johannesburg to the city centre, name it.

What has changed the most, though, is the people. South Africa is a very rich country (Africa’s wealthiest nation and among the world’s top 20 economies), but it has never successfully escaped its apartheid past. It had a crippling entitlement and waiting-for-manna mentality among its majority black population.

They really didn’t apply themselves to the best of their abilities, waiting for the good things that they felt were rightly theirs – money, homes, jobs, education - they had been unjustly denied by a racist regime to be distributed to them by a black government. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has done an awful lot to improve the lot of the ordinary people, but a great deal is still needed.

Meanwhile, a new black elite, many of them with political connections to the ANC, have grown so fabulously wealthy that they are among Africa’s, and indeed, the world’s, richest men. All this produced an unusually bitter and deadly inward-looking culture among the South Africans who feel left out, hence the rage that partly led to the bloody attacks on African immigrants in 2008.

But the “new” South Africans are applying themselves much harder in larger numbers, and they are more outgoing than I have known them since I started visiting this country many years ago. I think what the World Cup did was to get South Africans, for once, to look inside themselves and do something for the world, rather than always brooding and asking for groceries from the state.

In that sense, the World Cup was for South Africans a conversation about their citizenship, their responsibilities to it, and finally – their identity. Secondly, if you haven’t watched the film, Invictus (starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon), then you should.

It is about how the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa allowed the country to take a huge step in racial relations. Rugby was a white sport in a racially segregated South Africa. Football was for blacks.

In the end, that carried the Springboks to victory was that Mandela got the black population to rally passionately behind the national rugby team. With the Rugby World Cup, black South Africa got its first real chance to embrace white South Africa. And with the World Cup, white South Africa got to embrace black South Africa.

But this would not even pretend to be African World Cup if that is all there was to it. World Cup 2010 is the first time the world has put the fate of a global event of this magnitude in Africa’s hand. And there is a sense, that somewhere in there is a shy reparation for the bleeding veins left by slavery, and the plunder of treasures and humiliation of colonialism.

So, if this is an African World Cup, then it’s because this is the first real sign of a positive shift in the global narrative about Africa, and an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of our memory. There are many things at which we get many chances. We have many shots at finding love and making our relationships work. Every day, you get a new opportunity for personal redemption.

With the World Cup, South Africa had only one shot. If it had botched it, the stereotype of Africa as a dark continent, a doomed place where even the best like South Africa can’t hold a successful World Cup, would have endured and become embarrassing sporting folklore for the rest of the 21st Century.

It is a great responsibility to ask for, or to put on anyone’s shoulder. It says something about this once grumpy, racially divided nation and ill-tempered people that they dug deep and found the magic to hit the ball out of the park on the first strike. Today, the excitement is still about the World Cup itself. But one day, long after the winner has collected the prize and glory, the football brigades have departed, and the vuvuzelas gone silent, I am sure those with a sense of history will thank South Africa for the honour it has done to us all.