The Cup ran over, now for the hangover

That we delivered a world-class World Cup with the kind of drama that only Africa can serve up is undeniable. But who it ultimately benefited—aside from the screaming fans and the almighty Fifa—remains to be seen

The first World Cup on African soil reinforced the delinquent joy of hope—an experience this continent’s inhabitants, in particular, are all too familiar with.

In their quarterfinal clash with Uruguay, Ghana were mugged on the goal line in the dying minutes of extra time by Luis Suarez’s “immaculate fingering”.

Then came the agony of watching Asamoah Gyan’s resultant penalty kick-miss swirl in slow motion off the crossbar and the gut-wrenching drama of the ensuing penalty shootout. The misery of 840-million people followed close behind.

It felt too much like previous moments when hope was allowed to live before being kicked—in the nuts—to death. Like voting in Zimbabwe or Kenya and then having the election nicked and democracy rendered incontinent by the sharing of power between victors and thieves.

Vertiginous highs followed by the crushing lows of unfulfilled expectations pervaded this tournament—especially for those who supported Bafana Bafana, the dismal African teams or the romantic football of sides such as Germany and Mexico.

It is this cycle of hope flourishing, destroyed and then being reborn during the 2010 World Cup that has made the tournament a truly African experience—more so than any patronising mention of our rhythmic parties or Big Five welcomes.

Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez imagined before his team’s semifinal loss to Holland this week that football, and the World Cup, allows people to dream of a sense of self that goes beyond the constraints of global economic systems or their country’s national fiscus, military power and population size.

Tabarez said it would be difficult not to believe that victory on the football pitch translated into something more permanent: “We believe that,” he said, when thinking about the effect his team’s success was having on people back home, “but not to the point where we believe that the world has changed because we won a few games.”

Football has the potential to change, but not to the extent that cliché writers would have us believe. Through a distilling of emotions experienced over 90 minutes, it can potentially bring us closer to ourselves.

And there is an inescapable sense that South Africa—even for this briefest period—has experienced its own metamorphosis in hosting the World Cup: through these often subliminal moments of self-reflection. Or amnesiac suspension of reality.

Writer Imraan Coovadia remembers his heart “thumping” during the Bafana match against France, when the boys came so close to qualifying for the knockout stage of the tournament. “Compared with Brazil and India, street life in South Africa, especially at night, always seems so bleak, hostile, unforgiving. But since the World Cup started, there’s been a sense of joy and love and solidarity in the streets, with all these hundreds of thousands of people. It’s, you know, beautiful,” he said.

“And yes, we’re a manic-depressive country. In 2007 we were up, in 2008 we were down—so no doubt something will come along to ruin our mood, but hopefully it will just be another presidential wife, not a new wave of xenophobic riots,” said Coovadia.

That the spectre of fatal xenophobic attacks similar to those of two years ago still hangs over South Africa—with foreign Africans this week continuing to leave Western Cape townships in fear - is indicative of the paradoxical nature of sport’s effect. South Africans came out in droves to support other teams from the continent—especially Ghana—once Bafana had been knocked out, yet revulsion for African foreigners remains.

President Jacob Zuma has been at pains to point out that “the world has seen this country in a different light”. But people—such as shack dweller Mnikelo Ndabankulu—believe the corporate, elite nature of the tournament has done little to change the dispossessed’s view of the world.

“The poor have had no access to the World Cup or to the people from other countries who came here for it, so how could this change anything?” asked Ndabankulu.

England goalkeeper David James told the Mail & Guardian that he found the chasm that existed between South Africa’s world-class stadiums and hotels, and the ubiquitous shack sprawls, “staggering”.

“There is still so much to be done in this country in addressing what seems to be huge socioeconomic differences—that much is obvious—but whatever doubts I have about this World Cup’s effects on people is tempered when I speak to ordinary people like the guys who work at the hotel and their enthusiasm and excitement they feel to have us here,” said James.

Although the parochialism embedded in South African society through years of apartheid-induced isolation and, more recently, through ghettoisation and a dysfunctional education system, might have lifted for the middle classes and those working in menial jobs in the hospitality industry, it is arguable what effect, if any, it would have on those most angry about their marginalisation in this society - the unemployed youth who, potentially, are most prone to articulating their discontent through violence.

Zuma said, rightly, that the world has “seen the precision when it comes to planning and logistical arrangements. They have seen the efficiency of our security infrastructure.”

That South Africa has delivered a world-class Cup is irrefutable. But the delivery has been focused in and around stadiums, for television audiences and the elite who have visited our shores, from fans to players—and ultimately, for Fifa.

The South African government has responded, with billions of taxpayers’ rands, to Fifa’s requests for security, speedy 24-hour medical response, the swift justice of after-hours courts and efficient blue-lit transport for its officials and players—usually to the detriment of ordinary South Africans’ rights to access these, and with complete disregard for the ordinary punters stuck in traffic jams because public transport remains dysfunctional or awaiting, years later, some justice for a loved one’s murder or rape because of backlogged courts.

The question remains, too, of what Fifa’s legacy to South Africa will be. The stadiums are a legacy to ourselves, as is whatever goodwill we allow to grow from this tournament.

But observing the impunity with which Fifa has taken over the country and served its own ends—from co-opting police to act on behalf of itself and its corporate partners to its complete lack of transparency or accountability, especially with taxpayers’ money—one shudders to think what lessons watching politicians are learning.

ANC Youth League president Julius Malema has already been ordering police around as if they were his personal footmen. Blue-light brigades are already being misused by self-important politicians.

And on Wednesday night thousands of ordinary punters were prevented from watching the Spain vs Germany semifinal in Durban because the newly built R9-billion King Shaka Airport was closed down because of runway congestion.

Their commercial flights were either sent back to Port Elizabeth, Cape Town or Johannesburg, or circled for hours before landing too late for the match.

A pilot who had been trying to land a plane at the airport from 10am that day and managed to do so only close to midnight spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity. He said chartered flights, reportedly containing celebrities such as Paris Hilton and politicians such as Tokyo Sexwale, were given preference to land and park at the airport. Many were unscheduled, thus disrupting the day’s normal flight schedule and denying ordinary, paying football fans the chance to celebrate.

The Orwellian observation that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” has brayed louder than any vuvuzela at this World Cup.

But it has been suggested that this has been a tournament in which the team ethic has triumphed over the individual. We have swooned over the theatrics of Diego Maradona and the fleeting genius of his countryman Lionel Messi, only to see them both vanquished by the collective genius of Joachim Low and his German team. Ghana’s team spirit and endeavour has proved more successful than the teams propelled by individuals Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o.

The 2010 World Cup has been a reminder that the collective—of a team, of society—has the potential to be more successful than anything structured around individuals, their egos or their self-ordained rights.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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