Parallels of Ethnicity Inc. at the World Cup

One thing that we are not hearing about with any regularity is reporting on the experiences of World Cup fans in South Africa.  This is probably a good thing considering the fear build up that occurred for years in the world press with increasing frequency leading up to the event.  It is undeniable that many of the individuals who ‘braved’ the conditions to attend the World Cup this year in South Africa did so because they could tie it in to a grand tourist adventure in the country alongside their attendance at games.  These itineraries have probably included the major tourist sites in South Africa including Robben Island, the vineyards around Cape Town, Kruger National Park and various other safari ventures around the country as well as visiting sites to experience the variety of different ethnic groups within the country, particularly Zulu.  It is this journey into ethnicity that has marked some pretty interesting parallels for the World Cup.

In their compelling book Ethnicity, Inc., John and Jean Comaroff discuss the commodification of various groups in the context of a neoliberal world.  I explored this book with my students this past semester and my colleague Laura Powell.  The Comaroffs explore the rising phenomena of cultural commodification and identity incorporation as ethnic federations emerge as commercial enterprises built around identity-based businesses. They have termed this process “Ethnicity, Inc.” at once referencing both the idea of membership in a culturally constituted “people” and the fact that this cultural identity is more frequently being objectified and marketed to a larger global economic community. Through their fieldwork and research as well as the research of others, the Comaroffs develop several key dimensions that make up the larger process including ideas inclusion and exclusion through privileged genetics, that commerce and consumption produce ethnic groups, and struggles over intellectual property for indigenous groups.

For those World Cup fans who attend games in the oft-neglected city of Durban (the best city in South Africa as far as I am concerned) they undoubtedly are immersed in the standard bearer of Zulu identity, Shaka.  They may have landed at King Shaka International Airport, and then possibly proceed to the Lesedi Shakaland Hotel before going onto UShaka Marine World before finally getting it all together through a Shakaland day tour.  Now, anthropologists have always had trepidation when it comes to tourist agendas.  My philosophy is “when you are in the place, you do the thing” and if it rubs against your anthropology identity then analyze it as spectacle to bounce off of your ‘real’ research.  Are individuals engaging this commodified form of Zulu identity getting a ‘true’ glimpse into Zulu ethnicity?  It’s not the form of Ethnicity, Inc. that the Comaroffs are talking about necessarily.  But, if the tour company, cultural village or other form of ethnotainment fits a certain set of criteria, is it commodified culture or entrepreneurial spirit in a very neoliberal South Africa?

In the conclusion to the book the Comaroffs present a dynamic that is both promising and terrifying, “…we recognize, and have sought to make sense of, its appeal: of the promise of Ethnicity, Inc. to unlock new forms of self-realization, sentiment, entitlement, enrichment.  This notwithstanding the fact that it carries within it a host of costs and contradictions: that it has both insurgent possibility and a tendency to deepen prevailing lines of inequality, the capacity both to enable and to disable, the power both to animate and to annihilate.” (Italics theirs) I applaud them for sticking their necks out on this one and speaking to an inherent contradiction in anthropology.  But, it is the last dynamic that gives me shivers and one that some of the marketing around the World Cup has promoted in some capacity.

Sure, there is the inevitable graphics with various indigenous populations swooping in literally and graphically as bumpers for coverage of games or half-time analysis.  And, of course, at the very beginning there had to be someone of San descent holding up the World Cup trophy in a theme eerily reminiscent of The Gods Must be Crazy and extending the fauna fantasy that much more.  But these usual and easy targets of criticism are not the focus here.  It’s not FIFA, it’s Budweiser.  Ok, maybe it’s FIFA and Budweiser.  The graphics and segways showing the cultural and ethnic diversity of South Africa can be gauged on a continuum of authenticity and sincerity but these visuals lend toward the animate side of Ethnicity, Inc. The website and reality show model of ‘Bud House’ blends nationalism and ethnicity in a quasi-competition linked to individual teams that reflects the annihlate side for this visual anthropologist and it is this side of Ethnicity, Inc. that scares me.

One more post left and one question before that, if the Dutch and English sides had ended up playing each other in South Africa, how many references to South African colonial history would have been made by media?

6 thoughts on “Parallels of Ethnicity Inc. at the World Cup

  1. I wonder who benefits financially from this commodification of ethnic groups, in South Africa or elsewhere. I’m sure it varies by group and place. But I know that in at least some minority nationality areas in China it is Han Chinese who are the major beneficiaries. It is not uncommon for minority entrepreneurs who want to profit from the commodification of their own culture to be forced out of the cultural “marketplace”. This can’t be unique to China. Is it?

  2. “Are individuals engaging this commodified form of Zulu identity getting a ‘true’ glimpse into Zulu ethnicity?”

    Well, no. But I think the massive audience for the performances of World Cup identities and ethnicities is cultivated to view and engage more primarily with “Africa, Inc.” The compendium of masks, images of barefoot children kicking around a ragged ball, vuvuzela noise, and human interest reports form an amalgamated collection of images we are all primed to see. In interviews with “an Ivorian fan” or “a man struggling to find a place with electricity to watch the match in Harare,” too, I think we hear evidence of football’s ability to formulate a sort of unified pan-Africanism (though many of those interviewed said they supported England of Brazil) instead of an individualizing nationalism. As usual, while most all the nations present at the World Cup generate mental associations of one or two things that stand in affectively for the nation (“England” or “Japan”), places like South Africa or Ghana are only (I think) associated with crude mental pictorials and affects associated with “Africa.”

    As for your mentioning of the “blend[ing] of nationalism and ethnicity in a quasi-competition,” you seem to hint at football’s ability to animate animosities among ethnic(national?) groups who are both fired up by sport and “touching” one another in real time. You mention Bud House, which I haven’t seen. I wonder: if we analyze actual incidences (historically and at the World Cup) of violence or “animation,” would ethnicity hold any water as a category of analysis? (Does “hooliganism” map onto ethnicity, nation, class, gender?)

    (Also, I think that contended goal helped members of the viewing public to perhaps self-reflect on the impossibility of “true” glimpses into anything amid so many hyper-performative affects and technologies).

  3. One more post left and one question before that, if the Dutch and English sides had ended up playing each other in South Africa, how many references to South African colonial history would have been made by media?

    The contemporary Afrikaners are descendants of the Cape Dutch and the Trekboere; the majority but by no means all of the demographic makeup of both of these groups can probably be correctly characterized as ethnically Dutch. The Oranje are the national side of the Netherlands, one of the three national sides associated with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The country (but not the Kingdom) is often erroneously referred to as Holland, which is actually a region within the country. The Dutch are the majority ethnic group within Holland; the Flemish are also arguably ethnically Dutch.

    Usually the U.S. media merrily babbles on about things they realize they do not actually understand. But my guess is that they wouldn’t even try with this one.

  4. Yep…it’s doubtful that anyone would have delved into that complexity…great comment MT.

  5. The announcer did make a quip along the lines of, “There’s an Orange Free State in Port Elizabeth tonight!” after the defeat of Brazil.

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