A nasty secret threatens to spoil the World Cup
Mark Paterson in Cape Town on the xenophobia that could be unleashed by South Africa's World Cup exit
African immigrants to South Africa have rarely felt under such threat. Uruguay's 3-0 drubbing of the South Africans – or Bafana Bafana ('the boys, the boys') as they're known here - has left the World Cup hosts humiliated and angry. Many non-South African Africans fear that the hosts' frustration is about to be turned upon them.
With the country on the verge of an early exit from the tournament, an ugly display of anti-African violence could sully the rainbow nation's carefully tended international image of togetherness and alert the world's media to one of its nastiest secrets – that, sadly, some South Africans have a virulent fear and loathing of foreigners, especially other Africans.
Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Congolese, Somalis, Mozambicans and Malawians have tried to make a home as migrants in South Africa. And many of them are living in fear of xenophobic attacks allegedly set to be launched once Bafana Bafana are out of the Cup.
One notorious story that has spread throughout immigrant communities repeats inflammatory declarations said to have been made by a typical South African commuter on the country's overcrowded trains. The days of standing in carriages will soon be over, the commuter says, because "those from far who take our seats" will soon be sent packing.
Such rumours have previously stoked horrifying violence. Two years ago, South Africans in townships across the country launched a number of lethal attacks against African refugees and economic migrants, in which more than 60 foreigners were murdered, including some who were burned to death.
The attacks continue today, in particular against Zimbabwean farmworkers and Somali shopkeepers in the Cape, who have been forced to flee their homes and businesses. A recent study by the University of Cape Town found that xenophobia was "rife" in the workplace.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, only an estimated 11,000 African football fans from outside the country are here for the World Cup. Many middle-class African immigrants have tended to avoid going to the local fan parks that broadcast all the World Cup games on big screen. Many cigarette and soft-drink stalls run by Somali and Cameroonian immigrants, normally a common sight on the streets of Cape Town, close down when Bafana Bafana play.
Meanwhile, President Jacob Zuma's ANC-led government seems to want to ignore evidence of xenophobic attacks. As the World Cup was about to kick off, ministerial spokesman Themba Maseko beggared belief with the claim that no solid intelligence of any threat to foreigners had been received by the government. In Orwellian fashion, he also said that he understood why such xenophobic attacks were launched "as competition for limited resources occurs".
Much play has been made by the ANC of "national unity" in the past few months and Zuma called for South Africans to "be good" in the run-up to the tournament.
The dreams pinned by Africa upon its hosting of the World Cup were encapsulated in 2003 by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who, with Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, was a driving force behind his country's successful bid for the tournament: "We want to ensure that one day, historians will reflect upon the 2010 World Cup as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely turned the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict," he said. "We want to show that Africa's time has come."
However, Nigerian scholar, Adekeye Adebajo, who moved to Cape Town seven years ago to establish a Pan-African "brains trust", has noted that Mbeki's dream is over. "The recent xenophobic attacks may well represent the smouldering ashes of the death of Mbeki's African Renaissance project," said Adebajo, who is the executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.
"Unfortunately South Africa – the continent's most industrialised country – continues to suffer from a profound cultural schizophrenia inherited from decades of colonialism and apartheid social engineering. Many of its 48 million citizens have not truly embraced an 'African' identity."
If there is an 'African' spirit to this World Cup, it would appear to be spluttering. While the rest of the continent's football fans genuinely seem to want at least one African team – although preferably their own – to go all the way (or at least to the semi-finals), it remains to be seen whether local fans will be exhibiting a similar pan-African camaraderie. ·
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