Long road to 2010

2009-12-12 13:26

by Azubuike Ishiekwene

THE World Cup might be

six months away but fans in some African countries could already be playing the

match of their lives against fear and prejudice. It’s hard to tell which side

will win.

After the xenophobic attacks of May last year, however, South

Africa cannot be under any illusion that it will need more than talk to convince

the continent’s fans that this is “Africa’s World Cup”.

The image of the burning Mozambican man and scenes of hundreds of

residents fleeing the bloodied streets of South African provinces, which they

once called home, is hard to live down.

The authorities in South Africa, of course, will argue that they

are doing more than talk to bring healing and turn the page. Resettlement

programmes and national soul-searching are ongoing.

Also in the spirit of true African brotherhood, the legendary

Cameroonian footballer, Roger Milla, was in the spotlight during last Friday’s

draw in Cape Town.

And when the competition ­finally gets under way, thousands of

policemen will be deployed to make the streets safer, while special event visas

will be available to cope with the influx of an ­estimated 480?000 fans.

But a star guest appearance and more policing does not necessarily

make the event “Africa’s World Cup”.

The feeling outside South Africa that those responsible for the

xenophobic attacks were treated with kid-gloves – or no gloves at all – still

leaves a sense of foreboding.

The attacks, which left more than 62 foreigners

dead and thousands homeless, sparked off deep concerns among ordinary Africans

about whether there’s such a thing as African unity.

Those who think that football offers any hope of brotherly

redemption must have been shocked during the qualifying rounds in November, when

violent clashes between Egyptian and Algerian supporters in Cairo left 35 people

seriously wounded.

Since sport often imitates politics, the search for unity could be

just as elusive to fans in Cairo as it is to the Beninese trader who has to

cross at least 63 checkpoints before he can get into neighbouring Nigeria to

sell his fruit.

As

for the Nigerian traveller to the World Cup, he might reach Absurdistan before

he can expect to get a South African visa. Whatever the politicians may wish –

or say – the tournament will hardly change the feeling among a growing number of

Nigerians that they can only expect a cautious welcome in South Africa.

In July 2005, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka was detained for nearly

eight hours by South African immigration officials who didn’t seem to know the

difference between a laureate and loony.

For Nigerian fans who want to travel to South Africa the hurdle

will begin at the High Commission in Lagos, where if they are lucky, they might

get a visa on the presentation of their grandmother’s head on a platter.

As columnist and editor Joseph Adeyeye put it in one of his

articles in June: “South Africa is not very welcoming of Nigerians.

Many

efforts, including a few scholarly ones, have been devoted to examining the

factors responsible for this. The main reason, often adduced by South Africans,

is that foreigners (read Nigerians, Zimbabweans and Malawians) are responsible

for South Africa’s intractable crime problems.”

It was a big deal that the Nigerian national team qualified for the

World Cup. The legendary tension and rivalry between Nigerians and South

Africans, mostly fuelled by competition and lifestyle, appears to be a small

price to pay for the joy of qualifying for the tournament.

With three Fifa tournaments coming to Africa back-to-back, and the

continent throwing its weight behind Ghana’s historic defeat of Brazil in the

U-20 tournament in Egypt, it is hoped that the same kindred spirit will extend

to the World Cup.

Yet, whether the competition will provide temporary relief – or

even solidarity – among African fans could depend on how far the South African

team goes and how long our brothers from other parts of the continent decide to

stay after the tournament.

An early exit for the host nation may lead not only to a low crowd

turnout: it could also make idle, frustrated youths vulnerable to the sort of

tension over jobs and infrastructure that led to the bloody riots of last year.

With an illegal immigrant population of about four million and the

underlying causes of the last riots still unresolved, visitors to South Africa

who overstay their welcome may find that when survival is at stake, brotherhood

is only skin-deep.

Ishiekwene is the executive editor

of Punch magazine in Nigeria


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