Notes from South Africa 2010: Xenophobia and Humanity

Everywhere you turn in South Africa, FIFA has papered walls and billboards with the slogan ‘Ke Nako.  Celebrate Africa’s Humanity™.’  At first glance it seems banal and harmless.  But the more I see it, the more it bothers me.  First, there is something discomforting in seeing the large trademark symbol inserted next to every use of the slogan.  Can you really trademark ‘Africa’s Humanity?’  Isn’t that exactly the kind of neo-imperialism an African World Cup is supposed to counter?

Africa's humanity, FIFA, South Africa, World Cup

More importantly, however, the vague idea of celebrating ‘Africa’s Humanity’ seems to create a depersonalized other that is simply not there.  What is the difference between ‘Africa’s Humanity’ and humanity?  And is this World Cup really celebrating Africa as a whole?  The many African immigrants I’ve talked to in South Africa—Malawians, Zibabweans, Nigerians, Mozabicans, etc.—seem to feel otherwise.

In the conversations I’ve had during my two weeks in South Africa it has been more common to hear about Africa’s differences than its similarities.  There are the shocking differences between glitzy suburbs such as Sandton, full of gleaming shopping malls and Lamborghini dealerships, and sections of tin shantys in townships such as Alexandra—a mere few blocks down the street.  But there are also the perceived differences between Africans of different nationalities.

These perceptions are often negative.  As the Malawian fellow who works at the bed and breakfast where I’m staying told me, “Have you heard about this thing the xenophobia.  Here there is this big problem.”  He went on to explain that Malawians generally have a good reputation in South Africa for being honest and hard working, “But the Zimbabweans—ah, those ones can’t be trusted.”

Then there was the (white) South African who warned me sternly to be careful walking by a nearby apartment block: “Nigerians live there.”  Or the (black) South African who told me that in his village “there are too many problems with the Mozambicans; they are always just stealing.”

Whatever the stereotypes or national origins, many of the African immigrants I’ve talked to are nervous for the World Cup to end.  My Malawian friend claimed that in his Johannesburg township the threats are explicit: “They tell us, wait till the World Cup ends.  We’re going to kick your ass.”  Whether or not that is meant literally, there is a perception that right now many poor, urban South Africans are on their best behavior—but that may mean they are bottling up ‘the xenophobia.’

Why so much fear of African immigrants in the face of so much social marketing promoting African unity?  The core dynamic seems remarkably familiar to the contemporary relationship between the United States and Central America.  There is massive income inequality; poorly educated migrants are willing to work long, hard hours for low pay; unemployed and poorly educated locals find a scapegoat.

The World Cup, of course, offers a great backdrop for scapegoating.  In fact, the one thing locals, immigrants, and tourists seem to regularly agree upon is that the most dangerous group here is the dark overlord known as FIFA.  South Africa’s Mail & Guardian last week told of a Cape Town man who had stumbled into a brisk trade selling “FICK FUFA” t-shirts.

Even the US fans got in on the action the other night against Algeria: when Clint Dempsey’s goal was called back for being offside, the US fan section erupted into a three beat chant “F**k you FIFA…F**k you FIFA.”  It was fascinating to me that rather than blame the referee or the linesman as individuals, the fans choose to blame an entire abstract entity (though I do get that much of it has to do with FIFA’s handling of the mystery no-goal in the Slovenia game during which an individual was scapegoated).

Ultimately, then, the question on the streets in South Africa seems to be less who will win the World Cup and more who to blame.  Who to blame for losses, who to blame for inequality, who to blame for crime.  I’d emphasize, however, that the blame is often focused entirely on abstractions: FIFA rather than Sepp Blatter, Zimbabweans rather than the kind women selling her handcrafts in the public market.

Algeria, United States, World Cup 2010, South Africa

Civility before US v Algeria

In fact, one of the great things about the atmosphere around this World Cup is how positively disposed everyone is to basic, friendly human interaction.  Before the US game the Algerians were beating their drums and waving Palestinian flags, but afterwards the Algerian men I talked to were pure diplomacy: “Ah, it was a good game.  Both teams had chances—the US just wanted it a bit more at the end.”

So on an individual level everyone I’ve talked to here—Algerian, South African, Zimbabwean, Kenyan, Mozambican, Slovenian, Australian, Mexican, Dutch, Nigerian, and even English (!)—has been decent, engaging, human.  But still, my Malawian friend assures me, “What you don’t see is  that here in the locations [townships] things are getting tense.  I’m telling you, after 11th July when you are up there [back in the US]—well, just watch the news.”

Comments are closed.