By the time this article is published, the fate of Bafana Bafana in the 2010 World Cup will be known. South Africa will either be destined for the second round or will be the first host nation not to make it to the knockout rounds.
Like most South Africans, I am a naive optimist and dream of seeing my team progressing deep into the tournament.
Realistically, this will not happen. But does it matter? Of course, in the biggest global tournament of them all, winning matters, but something much more significant than victory on the field is at stake for South Africa and the African continent. Since the first Europeans set off for Africa hundreds of years ago and returned home with tall tales, Africa has been embedded in the European consciousness as the dark continent.
Colonialism not only devastated the continent economically, politically and culturally but left an idea of Africa as backward and incapable of getting its own house in order. Corrupt African leaders compounded the situation. This is where the World Cup in South Africa is important.
The World Cup may minimally contribute to South Africa’s economy and has, no doubt, created some employment, even if only temporarily, but it is in terms of image that it can have a real impact.
In a 2007 paper, in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy, Maenning and Du Plessis argue, after reviewing the impact of the 2006 World Cup on Germany, that the “public-image effects of sports events should no longer be neg- lected in cost-benefit studies of large sporting events”.
But how can image make a difference?
The World Cup highlights the dilemmas faced by many developing countries. Job crea- tion and reducing poverty are a main priority, but selling your brand (your country) is part of building the economy in a globalised world. Poverty reduction is dependent on a strong economy.
Watching the football festivities from Europe, there is no doubt that South Africa, and the African continent to a degree, has received some positive marketing. Every day, for a month, South Africa is on television. I hope this leads to increased business and tourism.
However, I have another wish it terms of global marketing. I hope the event allows for a more nuanced view of Africa to develop and that South Africans get the confidence to embrace this. Let me explain. As I read newspaper articles about South Africa in the European press, they seem to oscillate between football, economic and political progress in South Africa, and visits by high-profile Europeans doing charity work. Implicit is often a simplistic script for what they think South Africa is about. In a nutshell, South Africa is in the initial postindependence phase but will, ultimately, go the way of other African countries. This will be characterised by corruption and civil war, with European do-gooders trying to help from afar. The World Cup offers some hope, but the big story will be when it comes to nought and the postindependence script plays itself out.
But I want the real legacy of the World Cup to challenge this. I hope the space can be found between all the vuvuzela blowing and soccer drama to see the real face of Africa, and of South Africa, in particular.
Africa is a continent that is more than war and starving babies but rather a place where deprivation and ineptitude exist alongside resilience, capability and determination. Development will never be linear on the African continent, given its history, and it is a mistake to measure South Africa and its progress within a pure Western model.
In this context, the test of the World Cup is not whether South Africa can show it is capable of hosting a world-class event, but rather that it helps South Africa realise it is not Germany and finds its own voice and path to political and economic progress.