The World Cup and What it Means for South Africa

As I write this we are on the precipice of finding out who will play the Netherlands in what has turned out to be an all European World Cup final.  As many commentators have noted, any final match that has World War II overtones tends to produce drama so we shall see if Germany or Spain prevail.

The World Cup has meant many different things to people throughout the world and has carried varied meanings as well for the citizens of South Africa.  From one perspective it personifies a success story for the leadership of South Africa and President Jacob Zuma.  So far, the tournament has gone off without any major problems that were predicted for the first global sporting event on the continent.  Although the majority of proceeds are going to FIFA and other global entities such as Coca-Cola and whoever makes little leopards kicking soccer balls, it represents a victory for the formal economy of South Africa.  Unfortunately, as pointed out by John Oliver principally (and ironically) it has not meant much for the informal market which is the true economic engine of South Africa or any country for that matter.

The World Cup has also provided an opportunity for the much-maligned Afrikaner segment of the population a chance for some type of rebranding as noted by CNN.  In 2006, I watched the World Cup with both my adopted Afrikaner family and with Zulu friends in Durban.  I knew from that point on the World Cup would be bringing different types of emotion for these two different groups, anxiety for the former and excitement for the latter in the preceding years toward kickoff.  In the homes of both of these groups I felt the emotional ties to competing versions of what a political future might hold for the county.

The notion of home and issues around housing is a principal thread through all of my research and it has brought me into contact with some amazing people in South Africa including Ashraf Cassiem.  He and others from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign have used the World Cup to continue a focus on housing issues in the country through the first Poor People’s World Cup.  The work of this group and others such as the Shack Dweller’s Movement have demonstrated what the World Cup has meant to many…continued lack of empowerment and a loss of housing rights.

Knowing what the World Cup has meant to so many has made it difficult at times to support the games but sport has provided some entre for me as an anthropologist working in South Africa and Botswana.  In one of the initial blogs for this series on the World Cup a commenter noted that I should refer to Geertz and Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight and the link is definitely there.  In my research on gated community environments in Durban it turned out that being invited to play golf with some older Afrikaner gentlemen was the impetus for a participant observation breakthrough in my research.  And, in Botswana it wasn’t until my colleagues and I were caught up in an intra-village grudge match on the pitch that some major barriers were broken down leading to my favorite picture of all my work below…a photo everyone meant to look like a team photo for the upcoming World Cup.  Soccer means many things to many people, good and bad…and I hear it’s also called football.

2 thoughts on “The World Cup and What it Means for South Africa

  1. Thanks for the nice series of posts on the World Cup. I think it has meant a lot not just for South Africans, but Africans in general. I just got back from Ghana – in fact, I was stuck waiting for a gate to open at Kennedy Airport during Gyan’s missed penalty kick. I spent a number of evenings with friends and colleagues in Cape Coast watching the games, and the running commentary was priceless. The one thing that struck me was the pride and nationalism that was contagious – and the sense of “African-ness” that people picked up. Sure, much of it was pushed by the corporations – but my friends and colleagues picked up on things like the MTN advertisements (“Africa United”:), especially the one that featured African stars like Essien, Appiah (OK, I picked the Ghanaian ones!) who talk about having to journey to Europe for their careers, and happy to come back home to complete their journey (well, not Essien because of injury – I bet the Black Stars would be playing Sunday if he were not hurt). This mirrored my friends and colleagues own experiences – such as going to Germany to get the PhD, then coming back to Ghana (and the phone call from her Cameroonian classmate from Germany after Ghana-Germany game). My Ghanaian friends and colleagues consistently rooted for other African teams – Cote D’Ivoire jerseys were popular, and everyone was talking about bafana bafana. I think time will tell on the lasting impact of this particular World Cup.

    My eight-year old son was in tears after the US-Ghana game, but he then made me buy him a jersey of his favorite player (Prince Boateng, the player who gave up his German citizenship to play for Ghana, against his half-brother who played for Germany). He’s going to wear that jersey tomorrow at his soccer camp (wear your favorite team jersey day). I am not going to wear my red/yellow Gyan jersey – it”s too painful, especially with ESPN now repeatedly showing the nightmare as if it were a car wreck on the highway.

    I have a student interviewing small hotel/guesthouse owners in SA, following up the BEE program – I guess I’ll see what he has to say about the potential impact (but only if he brings me the vuvuzuela he promised). I myself can do without the K’Naan oh oh oh oh oh wavin’ flag for a while!

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