The month of vuvuzelas

OkayAfrica, July 11, 2010

In the run-up to the climax of the World Cup on July 11 in Johannesburg, with the field of teams inexorably reducing to finalists Netherlands and Spain, there was at last time between matches to start assessing the tournament’s global impact.

This was, after all, the first World Cup of the Facebook and Twitter age. Even YouTube was just a year old when Italy defeated France in the ill-tempered final of the last World Cup, in 2006. This time, the global audience consumed the World Cup – already the planet’s most popular and obsessively-watched sports event – in the most dense, real-time, multilingual, multimedia manner we have ever known.

And what we consumed extended far beyond events on the field: beyond ignominious first-round exits by Italy and France; beyond the blond ‘do and pinpoint strikes of Japan’s Keisuke Honda; beyond the imperious beatdowns a young, multiethnic Germany put on highly-touted England and Argentina; beyond the hands of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez illegally stopping Ghana’s late game-winner, and Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan tragically missing the ensuing penalty kick; beyond referee errors, goalkeeper heroics, 0-0 draws, and every glorious moment when the Jabulani ball, supposedly the sleekest and roundest ever made, was struck, tapped, stroked, headed or smashed into the back of the net.

We consumed, more voraciously than ever, our own consumption, with hysterical tabloid coverage from every country just a click away. We consumed gossip: Did England coach Fabio Capello’s ban on pre-match sex have a part in the squad’s poor form? Who is the mother of Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo’s newborn American baby? And we consumed entertaining sideshows like Paul the clairvoyant octopus, who correctly “predicted” from his aquarium tank every result of the German team and even Spain’s final victory.

Last but not least, we consumed Africa.

Holding the World Cup in Africa for the first time carried a clear symbolic meaning. It would be part recognition of the immense contribution of Africans to the development of the world game, and part showcase for the vibrancy and potential of the continent not just in footballing matters, but as a destination for investment, tourism, cultural exchange.

And staging the tournament in South Africa would honor the anti-apartheid struggle and the country’s transformation and present the advantage of access to the continent’s most advanced infrastructure and a hotel and travel industry able to accommodate a huge flux of fans from around the world.

Not everyone in South Africa enjoys football. (In the white community rugby is the main sport of choice.) And not every South African football enthusiast backed the choice to host the World Cup. Critics argued that spending on stadiums and hotels showed misplaced priorities for a country with serious poverty, inequality and health issues. Yet once the decision was made, the World Cup became a national showcase in which everyone, like it or not, had a stake.

Just as unavoidably, it became a showcase for all of Africa – despite a raft of ambiguities and conflations that set eyes rolling among activists, scholars, and anyone with a nuanced understanding of the continent. Collapsing Africa’s 53 states and billion people into one simplified concept easy to drape in stereotypes is an all-too-familiar source of frustration. South Africa’s political and business relations with other African states, the role of migrants in South Africa’s workforce, the xenophobic backlash against them, were just a few of the dimensions guaranteed to be obscured by billing this “Africa’s World Cup.”

Yet Africa’s World Cup it was; an avalanche of messaging ensured it would be. “This time for Africa,” sang Shakira in the tournament’s inane but catchy official theme song, “Waka Waka” – a typical instance of a non-African messenger delivering the official line. Lines of taste and dignity were trampled from the outset. Advertisers from Holland to Mexico created World Cup themed ads featuring pith-clad explorers in the bush, wide-eyed village children, Masai tribespeople, and those African signifiers of last resort: lions, elephants, giraffe, zebras, crocodiles, hippos, wildebeest.

By mid-tournament, new storylines had taken root thanks to the action on the field. The question now was what it meant for Africa that five of its six participants in the 32-team field failed to place first or second in their group, and so did not advance to the knock-out stage. Was the early elimination of South Africa, Algeria, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria some kind of lost opportunity or even dishonor to Africa as a whole? Columnists in the non-African press devoted much space to variants of this question, while TV match commentary, recycling a particularly tired stereotype, focused on the supposed physical advantage of African players versus the tactical edge of their European opponents.The Cup’s opening concert also struck a pan-continental note, giving prime billing to a mix of usual suspects from the world-music circuit (Hugh Masekela, Angélique Kidjo, Amadou & Mariam, Tinariwen) and up-and-comers with an alternate take (Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan, South African rockers BLK JKS). It was a pleasant mix, offsetting the annoying Black Eyed Peas and increasingly soulless Alicia Keys, but missing were the styles and artists that are actually popular among youth or the general public in large parts of the continent: Nigerian hip-hop and R&B, Ivoirian coupé-décalé, Ghanaian hiplife, Congolese soukous, Angolan kuduro, South African kwaito and more.

Fortunately, Ghana’s Black Stars made it out of their group, and thus were immediately branded “Africa’s last hope” to hold its own in the tournament. A hard-fought win over the United States in the second round led to the quarter-final match against Uruguay that ended in heartbreak. The tragic and dignified manner of Ghana’s exit solidified their support not just in Africa but around the world, and the lively farewell the players received on the streets of Soweto confirmed that pan-African solidarity was more than just an invention of political romantics or writers in search of a storyline. Still, there were limits. A Nigerian acquaintance grumbled, not in jest, that Ghana deserved to win but ought not to be the first African team to hoist the Cup. And after the elimination of their own Bafana Bafana squad, South Africans were more likely to don Brazil shirts than those of any other team.

In the end, a tournament that South American teams seemed set to dominate instead came down to two European countries. The tactical and stylistic connections between the Spanish and Dutch teams gave football scholars plenty to chew on. Observers in search of historical ironies could point to the fact that the Dutch East India Company was the first to colonize South Africa – or reach all the way back to the Eighty Years War between Holland and Spain. As it turned out, the match itself was violent enough, but ended in deserved victory for an elegant Spanish side.

In South Africa, the impending end of an intense month brought relief and deserved pride at the World Cup’s success. Giving the lie to pre-tournament hyperbole about all that could go wrong in South Africa – violent crime, transportation problems, prostitution, terrorism, other unspecified mayhem – were record attendance numbers and happy fans streaming home. The new challenge for South Africa’s political and business leaders was to capitalize on the good will. Meanwhile critics warned of chronic problems resurfacing once the party was over. In the townships, rumors spread of impending violence against African immigrants after the eyes of the world turned away.

Elsewhere in Africa, the end of “Africa’s World Cup” way down on the continent’s southern, winterly tip spelled neither new business opportunities nor new threats. While South Africa has a functional domestic football league, top young footballers in other African countries are still snatched up by unscrupulous foreign scouts and fed into lower levels of the European game, while most local talent faces underfunded and disorganized domestic leagues. Mercenary European coaches come in for short stints at high prices, but still less than it would cost local authorities to invest in quality football academies.

Beyond football, the Cup’s effect on the rest of Africa will be incidental – another of those global Africa moments with benefits that are mostly symbolic. If anything, the World Cup may leave Africa more vulnerable, not less, to the simplifying gaze of well-meaning outsiders, such as Belgian photographer Jessica Hilltout, whose images of men and boys in various African countries playing soccer with improvised balls were being shown in a Johannesburg gallery. The photographs are artful, technically strong. Yet Hilltout’s artistic statement – “Africa is a world like no other. Unstructured, disorganised, carefree, monotonous. African people have simple needs and huge hearts. They accept their lot in life with a supreme calmness” – conveys the lazy condescension that afflicts so much of the continent’s treatment by its would-be foreign advocates.

Still, this was a good World Cup. An excellent one, even. The football was strong, the competition exciting, the logistics successful, the champion new. And the meaning of holding all this in a free South Africa, in the presence of revered figures like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the spirits of their fallen comrades in the struggle, was so strong as to trump any misgiving. Even ESPN, the normally craven sports TV behemoth, ran a strong documentary on how soccer kept up spirits and honed the organization of political prisoners in the Robben Island prison during apartheid.

All that – and vuvuzelas too.

The long plastic horns ubiquitous in South African stadiums were excoriated as noise pollution by foreigners (and some South Africans) at the start of the World Cup. By tournament’s end, they had become its most prized souvenir, an international cult item that traveling supporters were bringing home by the bushel.

An “African” item almost entirely liberated, in material and context, from any existing positive or negative stereotype of Africa, the vuvuzela might just do more to promote a healthier relationship to Africa in the West than the funkiest new band, the most stirring Nick Kristof or Bono appeal, or the most earnest art project.

For now, its joyous, honking high-decibel output bears witness to one incontrovertible fact: The football has come and gone. “Africa’s World Cup,” for all its success, will fade into memory.

But it brought the noise.