OP Rana

Africa, World Cup and neo-colonialism

By OP Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-11 07:09
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The four-year wait is over. The debates may continue, though. Hosts South Africa kick off the World Cup against Mexico today. France and Uruguay, former champions both, battle it out later in the evening. Without the artistry of Zinedine Zidane, even French fans know, it will be impossible for France to reach the quarterfinals.

But if eternal favorites Brazil fail, their fans will forever think, what if their coach Dunga had been a bit more practical. What if he was a believer in joga bonito (the beautiful game)? What if he had picked Ronaldinho the brillante? Things, however, would be different if Kaka outshines his Real Madrid teammate Ronaldo in Brazil's game against Portugal and leads his team to World Cup glory in the end.

Things would be different, too, if the Maradona-Messi magic casts a spell in South Africa and they fly back home to Argentina with their third Cup. Or, if England win their second. Or, the Netherlands lift their first. Or, Fernando Torres, David Villa, the Xavis and Cesc Fabregas strike gold for Spain.

The World Cup, for decades, has been mouthwatering stuff. Seeing the best of the very best in football in action gives fans the adrenaline rush. Football fans, and there billions of them across the world, will for a month forget almost everything. And since this has been touted as Africa's World Cup, Africans will perhaps be the most excited of the lot.

But will the World Cup break the colonial myth that Africa is an "inherently impaired darker section" of the human race? Will it release the post-colonial Western stranglehold on the continent? Will it stop the pillage of Africa, which began in the 16th century and continues to this day? Will it restore Africa to its pristine environmental past?

The world loves football. It's a beautiful game. But it's not beautiful because of the Di Stefanos, Puskases, Peles, Bests, Cruyffs, Maradonas and the Ronaldinhos and Messis. Football is a beautiful game because it can be played by anyone anywhere (except the Arctic and Antarctica, perhaps). It does not necessarily need proper kits or the lush green of artificial grass or even a goalpost. It just needs a football, made of leather or rubber, or even rags rolled into a ball and some players - the way it is still played by millions of children in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Football's roots have been traced to China. But modern football, like so many other games, was born in England and institutionalized in Europe. And that is perhaps where the problem of football and hegemony lies. The Latin Americans may be masters at joga bonito, but the real masters of the game (its rules and regulations) are the Europeans. Since it's these masters of the game that have carried the World Cup to Africa (South Africa, to be precise), it is not expected to help Africans break the myth of being "inherently impaired". Unfortunately, even the first president of free Senegal, the great poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, fell prey to the corollary myth of the supremacy of Western civilization vis--vis all other civilizations, no matter how ancient or knowledgeable they are. Even a cultural theorist like him asked Africans to stop denouncing colonialism and Europe, for he considered the deaths, pains, sufferings, humiliation and rampant destruction of resources and the ways of life under colonialism to be the birth pangs of African nations.

Of course, Julius Nyrere and Kwame Nkrumah and other African intellectuals differed, condemning the colonizers for raping their land and turning them into slaves. But despite the Nyreres, Nkrumahs, Aime Cesaires, Jomo Kenyattas, Patrice Lumumbas and even the Senghors, most of Africa is still run by Anglophones or Francophones, who have now colonized their own land. The pillage continues, only that it is now carried by Africans themselves for the benefit of their former colonizers.

Still, most of the stories coming out of Africa are about famines, wars, genocides, rapes and ethnic cleansing. (After all, the World Cup is a once in a while event.) This, as Chinua Achebe says, has its roots in 400 years of abusive writing on Africa "developed into a tradition with a vast storehouse of lurid images to which writers went again and again to draw 'material' for their books". Writers like (Achebe and) Wole Soyinka have tried to reverse that. Soyinka's play, Death and the King's Horseman, was conceived while he was a fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, in the 1970s. He has said that every day he came down the college staircase he would pass a bust of Winston Churchill, "that old bulldog of British colonialism". And every day he had an overwhelming desire to "push it and watch it crash".

But then the Achebes, Soyinkas and the Sembene Ousmanes can change society only that much, for their reach is confined to readers. The rest of Africans still live in the world of Achebe's Things Fall Apart. A vast expanse of Africa is still the world of Achebe's tragic hero Okonkwo, who has good intentions but fears that other men may see that as his weakness. This drives him to make decisions, consciously or unconsciously, that he regrets as he progresses in life. These "other men" in Africa today are the former colonizers.

Till these "other men" exist, even winning the World Cup cannot restore Africa's pride.

The author is a senior editor of China Daily