South Africa | At the top of our thoughts, near the bottom of the world

Post-independence and post-democracy, most countries quickly fade off the dinner and coffee tables of the world and we don’t talk about them. We want to keep the focus of attention on the country and keep it at the top of the mind of the world: to discuss us, to talk about us, to write about us.

Danny Jordaan, CEO, 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee

Green Point stadium, a 2010 World Cup semifinal venue, approaches completion in Cape Town, Jun 09. (Photo courtesy Department of the Premier, Provincial Government Western Cape)

Cape Town, Jun 22 | At this extremely southern destination world football finds itself poised between an obscenity and a dream. The obscenity is the reported £136 million bank draft Real Madrid will relay to fellow European giants Manchester United and AC Milan for Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká. The immense sum, spent with all the consideration of a sigh, mocks the idea of football as a sport for all. Bobby Charlton calls the £80 million Ronaldo fee, a world record, “a little bit vulgar” but the price of doing business.

The counterpoised dream is that a nation of the rainbow such as South Africa might, on Eduardo Galeano’s subjective scale of wrong and right in soccer, nudge a balance skewed toward profit back toward beauty. Football could shift from shadow to sun, even as the World Cup ventures to the southern hemisphere’s late autumn and winter beginning 11 Jun 2010.

“This is a place where sports is a necessity, not a luxury,” said prisoner Big Mo Masemola of the soccer culture and league apparatus that developed starting in the 1960s on Robben Island, seven miles off Cape Town. He speaks in the book by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, More Than Just a Game: Football v Apartheid (2008). Throughout formal correspondence among political prisoners seeking to keep alive their ambition of a free South Africa through fastidious application of FIFA regulations to the island-based Makana Football Association, the standard courtesy closing was “Yours in sport.”

Dilemmas confronting those incarcerated on Robben Island resemble the balancing act South Africans face while negotiating FIFA’s viselike grip on its trademark product and the desire to lift a country skilled in creative coexistence. FIFA’s control extends in the ongoing Confederations Cup to strict brand management, such that a perturbed reader of Business Day could not buy a 650 rand ($79) replica Bafana Bafana jersey for want of proper plastic.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu invoked the phrase “rainbow people” at a Cape Town demonstration in 1989. But how does a society come into its own when it realizes that being the rainbow nation is not good enough? “A rainbow is ephemeral. It’s the consequence of a unique circumstance,” says Paul Bannister, acting CEO of Brand South Africa. The idea of “branding” the country took root 10 years ago when tourism authorities realized the mundane existence of a stable constitutional democracy—at least in contrast to the upheavals of the previous decade—would not take South Africa to the level of Brazil, Russia, India and China as power players.

Now, on a more human scale, there are signs that locals are looking to discover their own approaches to righting inequities, even drawing a thread between key events in the freedom struggle and the World Cup. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if those youth in 1976 did not actually rise up and start the process which led to the 1994 elections,” says Rich Mkhondo, spokesman for the 2010 organizing committee, referring to the Soweto student uprising.

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