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Personal identity should not be confused with civic concepts of nationality

Tuesday August 14 2018

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In July 2018 the Fifa World Cup in Russia was won by the French team in a final match against the Croatia. The world seems to be able to agree on that. But beyond that, issues of identity, nationality and colonisation rear their head.

The controversy at the international level was ignited by South African comedian Trevor Noah on US TV, where he said in jest, "Africa won the World Cup".

The French ambassador to the US responded in a letter, criticising the joke and informing Mr Noah that "France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin.

To us there is no hyphenated identity’.

It is well within the rights of the ambassador to consider the joke tasteless, but the "joker" is a well-known comedian, so missing the mark in a joke can hardly be considered malicious. The ambassador, on the other hand, sounds sanctimonious, though quite straightforward.


The question then remains, did Africa win the 2018 World Cup? The answer is No, but the World Cup was won by Africans. There is a difference - Africa is a place. That place did not present a team in this competition. Africans are people. About 50 percent of the French team was composed of African peoples.

There are genetically determined phenotypical characteristics of people and each race. These, regardless of what social constructions we may apply, cannot be changed, even if they are often represented in human populations with variances that cannot be explained.

Africans, just like any other race, can belong to any nationality. But a nation cannot make people, people make a nation.

Implying, therefore, that there are peoples of the world who do not have hyphenated identities is to deny the richness of identity outside the details of a passport, the historical aspects that influence identity and the experiences of discrimination, exclusion or inclusion, racism and the challenges faced by minorities wherever they find themselves in the world.  

Yet it is from these experiences or the absence of them that people form the identity that they chose for themselves.

Identity should not be confused or mixed up with civic concepts of national identity: I am Kenyan, I am French, I am this or that.

Identity is often embedded in ideological concepts, value systems, and when colour is included, the issue of white privilege arises, for those who live in predominantly Caucasian nations or even neighbourhoods.


If, then, a French Team won the World Cup, what claim and sense of pride can be apportioned to all other Africans? Our pride should perhaps be overshadowed by our sense of shame. Why? Because talent in football is widespread among the African population and nations. But the national investment in this talent is appalling. Many African players end up on international leagues, because they lack support in their own nations. When they get support in other nations, Africans are happy to claim them as their own.

African footballers are forced to stoically choose to play the game they love in and for other nations amidst racist remarks sometimes even on the pitch. And there is no shame whatsoever in their choice — they have talent to nurture, families to feed and bills to pay.

Many teams from African nations do not qualify to play in the World Cup. And it is not for lack of talent, but logistical, financial, strategic and political incompetence.

Kenya's award-winning athletics team, for example, has time and time again been subjected to illogical travel arrangements, inadequate kits and uniforms (while family members of officials masquerade as nationalists on social media in these kits), delays in remittances of allowances, suspect supports staff when they travel and delays in accreditation to events they travel to participate in. No one is ever held to account for any of this. The national outrage is usually short-lived and our sense of shame only skin deep.   

Kenya, for example, has funds (taxpayer money) to send members of Parliament to aimlessly watch the game but lack the mental temerity to give the same sort of support to Harambee Stars, who in any eventuality would be on the pitch to represent Kenya in the World Cup in five years. Goals and aims are upside down and inside out.

The only institution that seems to recognise talent is the National Police Service, which supports a number of athletes, including gold medallists. KCB has also been known to support rugby players. A public institution such as the National Youth Service should support and pay salaries to one of our national teams — they do seem to have bottomless budgets.

African nations must organise. Otherwise we might as well start celebrating Africans winning the World Cup for a non-African nation in Qatar 2022.