Mediating South Africa 2010: Parting Thoughts and Sources

A faux Bafana Bafana jersey via the blog 'Africa is a Country'

(Note: The second half of this post is a set of suggested links and sources for context and culture around the coming World Cup; anyone interested in that more than my own thoughts on context—or anyone with suggestions of your own—should feel free to skip ahead)


I’ve cried twice this last year.  Pathetically, perplexingly, and maybe significantly, both those occasions were prompted by World Cup promotional media: one was the first time I saw the video of K’Naan’s ‘Wavin’ Flag’ thinking it was going to be the official World Cup anthem (it has since come to pass that there are many different “official anthems” at the whim of various sponsors, and that the lyrics of the World Cup version of ‘Wavin’ Flag’ have been significantly watered down); the other was the first time I saw the Puma ‘Journey of Football’ video.  I’m generally quite a stoic fellow.  I tend to be hyper-critical of marketing and its mechanisms.  Yet, somehow these brief pieces tore down all the intellectualizing I’ve tried to do during this ‘Year of African Soccer’ and confronted me with confusing and raw emotions: the media representations of Africa that are coming out of this World Cup, which in my mind also translate to broader representations of global inequality and social justice, matter.

I started writing these weekly pieces almost a year ago for exactly that reason: I hoped to be a small part of intelligent conversations about soccer and/as culture, and to offer whatever perspectives I have as an American soccer fan with experiences in Africa and training in social science.  Trying to write from that place has been engrossing, frustrating, great fun, and occasionally demoralizing.  I’ve been alternately engaged, insulted, complimented, and ignored (and I’ve come to understand why bloggers do so much meta-commentary about blogging—something I never understood when I was just a reader).  Any conversations my writing generated mostly are nothing to do with Africa: the things I’ve written this year have been about half related to Africa and half not, but the pieces that have gotten the most comments and links are about the psychology of fan rivalries and the demographics of American soccer.

I know rationally that this shouldn’t surprise me—Africa is usually not on our radar.  It has also become increasingly clear that FIFA so dominates and manufactures the modern World Cup that there is little room for genuine local character.  As Greg Fredericks, identified as “a senior manager for South Africa’s World Cup organizing committee,” explained to the New York Times: “This is not our World Cup…It is FIFA’s World Cup. We are just the organizers. We are the stage.”

But I still think if there is to be any lasting legacy of this 2010 World Cup, for good or for ill, it will be in offering millions of soccer fans around the globe a rare window on Africa as a full member of the global community.  When else, besides in the context of war or disaster, do we pay much attention?  So far, however, the media coverage I’ve seen has not been encouraging.  As much as I like the Puma ‘Journey of Football’ video for representing African football in all its passionate guises, I am bothered by the many other ads that try to sell an image of Africa as one large rural village full of barefoot boys and rag balls.  Similarly, as much as I appreciate the sudden appearance of several decent books about soccer in Africa, I am bothered by how most of the day-to-day media seems to focus on sensationalizing stories about crime, unsold tickets, and perceived dysfunction.

There are, certainly, problems in South Africa—but the fearful stories are so rarely counterweighted by any appreciation for the nuanced reality of South Africa as a complex society.  I’ve been surprised at how little interest there seems to be in the real soccer experiences, and ‘normal’ daily experiences, of 47 million South Africans who somehow manage—as most of us do—to muddle through.

Take, for example, Friday’s Soccer America Daily “Section Two: Around the Net” (which arrived as an email while I was writing) with the dramatic headline “US State Department issues South Africa travel alert” and proceeds to raise an alarm:

“The U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert to U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in South Africa to safety and security issues related to the FIFA World Cup taking place in nine cities across the country. It includes:

‘The vast majority of visitors complete their travels in South Africa without problems; however, visitors should be aware that criminal activity, including violent crime, is prevalent throughout the country.  Be alert and aware of your surroundings at all times, looking out for your own personal security. While driving, keep doors locked and windows closed, avoid having purses, phones, bags and luggage in plain view, and when stopping at intersections at night or in isolated locations, leave enough space in front of your vehicle for a quick exit. …’”

At the bottom, however, is a subtle link to “Full information” on the “U.S. Mission to South Africa” dedicated World Cup website, which offers a different message that most readers won’t see:

“As we count down to the World Cup, the entire United States Diplomatic Mission to South Africa shares your excitement about what is to be a world-class sporting event showcasing the beauty of South Africa and her people.

We believe that South Africa will host a dynamic sporting event and that the World Cup 2010 will be a great success. As South Africa’s friend and partner on the continent and in global affairs, the United States Mission is proud to welcome and support its National Team in the games this year.”

Obviously the issuing of a travel alert, no matter that it is boilerplate stuff for a sports mega-event, seems much more newsworthy than travel-agent style platitudes (and most days I really enjoy the ecclectic links in ‘Around the Net’).  But I still feel bothered by what seems to be unbalanced sensationalizing, and can’t help think it panders to classic stereotypes of Africa as ‘dark and dangerous.’

I suppose all I can do at this point is go and see for myself.  I leave for South Africa June 7th, arriving a mere two days later (after stops in Newark, London, and Doha Qatar to make the flight moderately affordable) where I hope to offer impressions of my own for this site during the group stage.  I have not, unfortunately, been able to wrangle any special connections or credentials—I’m going entirely on my own tab as a regular soccer fan.  But I would welcome any ideas for off-the-beaten-track stories, suggestions of what people who will not be there are curious to know, or connections with people who will be in the Pretoria/Johannesburg area for the US group games (I’ve even got an extra ticket for the US-England game if anyone is interested in a trade—my email is linked below).  I’m not sure what or how often I’ll be able to write while there, but it will likely be my last hurrah: after the World Cup I’ve got to cut back or cut out this soccer writing.  It’s just too consuming.

For now, however, I’m still in full World Cup frenzy and still feel intensely engaged with thinking about representations of South Africa 2010.  So in that vein, I’d like to offer some suggestions of media I’ve found worthwhile for thinking fans wanting to complement the games with the places.  This is not meant to be an exhaustive list—in fact, if anyone out there is reading this and has additional recommendations to add in the comments that would be most welcome.   But here’s a start on sources from which to try and find perspectives offering some of the context, complexity, and nuance the culmination of this ‘Year of African Soccer’ deserves:


An example of content from South Africa's Mail & Guardian

South African Sources: South Africa itself has quite a vibrant and diverse media, and it is well-worth checking out local perspectives in addition to international sources.  Regarding newspapers, for example, The Mail & Guardian is among the most respected in South Africa, and has its own special World Cup section (though so far I’ve found the main site more informative).  In addition to straight news, interesting features here include satiric video segments of “ZA News” (see a sample below) and one of the most well-known political commentators in South Africa: a cartoonist known as Zapiro (who is currently embroiled in his own controversy around cartoons offense to some Muslim groups).  Other interesting South African sources include The Star, the Cape Argus, the Sowetan, and the more alternative Daily Maverick—with others easily available on-line.  One article on the Daily Maverick site includes a helpful Q & A for World Cup visitors including the question of whether there any local “special procedures for paying homage to Sepp Blatter?”, with the response that of course, “There’s the Sepp Blatter tribute dance, which you’ll learn on arrival at the airport.”

I’d also recommend keeping tabs on the blog Africa is a Country, which is run by a South African academic living in New York who also happens to really know soccer.  In fact, I’d further recommend a soccer-specific sister site Football’s Coming Home, except that it seems to have had some hosting and updating problems lately [corrected, as per Sean's comment below].  So while ‘Africa is a Country’ is mostly about Africa-related politics, media, and art—with a smart, vibrant, critical spin (and links to other kindred sites in its blogroll)—I’m looking forward to some alternative World Cup content as the tournament happens.

Books: However predictable, I’ve been grateful for the run of good quality books on African soccer in the run-up to the World Cup.  These include several that have been reviewed here on Pitch Invasion: a historical perspective on African soccer by scholar Peter Alegi titled African Soccerscapes, a historical book and documentary titled More Than Just a Game about the importance of soccer on Robben Island in apartheid South Africa, along with two quality journalistic takes—Africa United by Steve Bloomfield and Feet of the Chameleon by Ian Hawkey.  Of the many tournament specific guidebooks on offer, I’ve particularly enjoyed World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics for its mix of eclectic perspectives and reasonably thorough overviews (it is clear from some minor editing over-sights that it was put together relatively quickly—but such is the challenge of actual hard-copy books for time-sensitive events).  I’ve also been intrigued by a PDF book titled Player and Referee investigating the hosting process put out by South Africa’s respected Institute for Security Studies and linked to by a NY Times review.

Documentaries: There seem to have been several relevant documentary films put together amidst the World Cup build-up, but I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to actually track them down (barring ethically/legally suspect downloads).  So if anyone knows how to access these legally, let me know.  The hints I’ve seen include: The African Game by director/photographer Andrew Dosunmu; Fahrenheit 2010 (a critical take on FIFA and the hosting of the World Cup—which I think maybe has been re-named ‘Who Really Wins’ for distribution); and a fascinating looking film on the legacy of Zaire’s ill-fated trip to the 1974 World Cup titled Between the Cup and the Elections (but in French).  There are also clips from short films, including one titled Drogba Fever, along with a fun story about a travelling South African ‘Soccer Cinema’ available on the PBS web-site.  Other films mentioned by Soccer Cinema include Black Star: An African Football Odyssey (about Michael Essien), and Streetball (about South Africa’s team in the homeless World Cup).  I also wrote a piece here on Pitch Invasion about an excellent documentary from a few years back on a women’s soccer team in Tanzania.  Finally, I’m cautiously optimistic about some of the short features ESPN will be putting together on South Africa outside the big stadiums, and suspect there will be many other such takes from the world media—again, if anyone knows of good pieces please leave comments.

Essays: Everywhere I go the main World Cup magazine feature I see is that damn Vanity Fair issue with the Annie Leibovitz photos of famous players in their underwear, and the condescending essay by a haughty Brit.  We’ve made much progress in the American soccer media, but the whole Vanity Fair thing feels like a major step back (though to be fair, they do have a good soccer specific web-site going that is much more interesting than the magazine’s World Cup feature).  There are, however, some other good magazine style essays I’ve seen—and I’m sure more to come.  But so far I’ve liked Alexandra Fuller’s piece in National Geographic (which has little to do with soccer, but much to do with South Africa), the excellently titled ‘Ballad of a South African Football Fan’ from the Economist’s Intelligent Life, and the Guardian series of essays on ‘South Africa Today’ by South African writers.

Other: Some random sources I’ve enjoyed stumbling across include an academic library bibliography on ‘Football in Africa’ (with a slight Dutch bias thanks to being put together by the African Studies Centre in Leiden); a collection of ‘official’ 2010 World Cup art; and a socialist perspective on why “South Africa wins the World Cup … of inequality.” I’m also interested in the many efforts to leverage the World Cup towards socially conscious ends, which include an interesting blog on the World Cup and Corporate Social Responsibility and FIFA partner ‘streetfootballworld’ who is leading the main World Cup charitable legacy of constructing ‘Football for Hope’ centers across Africa (suspiciously, however, while the official campaign was “20 Centres for 2010” there are only 6 announced and no one has been able to tell me what happened to the other 14).  Finally, there will certainly continue to be much good web/blog coverage—though I can’t tell how much will focus on the contexts in addition to the games.  I have enjoyed reading the archives of The Global Game for its occasional Africa themes, and Nutmeg Radio for its pieces on social change and series on South African history.

My work: Finally, forgive the self-promotion but I’ve worked hard this last year for nothing more than intrinsic satisfaction and writing practice.  So I’d love it if anyone found some of my old work offering an American perspective on African soccer here on Pitch Invasion interesting: I first wrote about my own experiences playing in Malawi, then wrote several pieces on prominent issues in contemporary African soccer (on the uncertain ages of players, on local obsessions with European leagues, on youth academies and player migration, on the idea of sports as part of development, and on magic and superstition), several pieces related to January’s African Nations Cup in Angola (on China building stadiums, on a hypothetical ‘Francophone’ advantage, on my experiences working in Angolan refugee camps, a sort-of response to the Togo bus tragedy, and reflections on how Africa gets represented through soccer), two stories of African players coming to America (on Futty Danso and Steve Zakuani), and I’ve linked above to my various Africa related book and movie reviews.  Finally, in recent months I put together two stories on South Africa’s soccer history that, to my great consternation, hardly anyone seemed to read: one on the connections between South African soccer and the old North American Soccer League, and one on how South Africa’s greatest soccer moment complemented their now famous Rugby World Cup.  Thanks very sincerely to anyone who’s been paying attention.

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