World Cup: They Wanted Mandela but Got Vuvuzelas

Hua's note: So how 'bout North Korea? When I wrote about them yesterday morning, I figured they would end up getting more or less humiliated by Brazil. Perhaps this is what the Brazilians figured as well, so eager were they to help their curious opponents up and dust them off after tackles and challenges. At one point, Lucio, Brazil's most intimidating defender, actually shook a North Korean winger's hand after a particularly gutsy foray toward the Brazilian goal. Was this sportsmanship? Fear of the unknown? Fear of accidental poisoning? Pity? It's impossible to say, though one can be certain they would not treat Argentina with the same good vibes. Maybe Lucio et al were just hoping that the North Koreans would be open to swapping their remarkably hard-to-obtain shirts after the match.

To recap the past week: I wrote about the World Cup TV commercials, Anmol Chaddha considered the meaning of rooting for South Africa, Pete L'Official measured the dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case, Anmol reported on R. Kelly's allegiances, I wrote about vuvuzelas and Piotr Orlov recounted the beauty and tragedy of Dutch football.

Today, on a very special anniversary in South African history, and as Bafana Bafana return to action against Uruguay, Anmol offers his thoughts on the meaning of Mandela, the Soweto uprisings and the lines marked "out-of-bounds" by FIFA.

They Wanted Mandela But Got Vuvuzelas
By Anmol Chaddha

CAPE TOWN, South Africa--Given the place that South Africa and the movement against apartheid long occupied in the global imagination, it seems that a month of nonstop football must somehow tell us something about the transformation of South African society. More than previous World Cups, there is an obvious inclination to place the 2010 edition in a broader historical context. The default narrative is the cliché of South Africans coming together across social divisions to unite around soccer--an Invictus redux--with the less frequent but still predictable look at how the black poor have not enjoyed the benefits.

Not even a week into the World Cup, the opening match is already fading, written over by more than a dozen matches in the days since. But how extraordinary for the World Cup to have opened in Soweto. Munich, Seoul, and Paris are global cities that were obvious sites for the spectacle in the recent past. Soweto--the townships! eKasi!--is home to more than 1 million Africans, created through forcible segregation by the apartheid regime.

The last time Soweto captured the world's attention was when students protesting against unequal education policies were fired upon by police--34 years ago today. As the footage was beamed around the world, it became a critical turning point in the struggle against apartheid. Shooting into the backs of unarmed youth, the apartheid state was exposed internationally as unambiguously immoral and illegitimate--most powerfully captured in the image of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried away in the arms of another student. It was a definitive flashpoint that drew thousands of activists into training for guerilla resistance, fueled the international movement against apartheid, and politicized a generation of South Africans that would push through an increasingly violent conflict in the 1980s toward the end of apartheid.

At the opening ceremonies last week, FIFA was clearly trying to cast itself into an important role in the long-running, feel-good story about the transformation of South Africa, centered on Nelson Mandela as the main character. Having retired from public appearances in 2004, Mandela was obviously reluctant to attend, and hoped to watch at home in peace. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, obsessed with the imagery of Mandela, made no secret of his desire to have him simply appear. Regardless of his age or physical condition, FIFA did not seem to care much about whether he would even have been able to speak, but wanted to trot out a 91-year-old, frail Mandela as a kind of mascot.

It looked like FIFA was going to get the scene they wanted for their Invictus: 2010 World Cup version. Mandela ultimately had to skip the opening after his great-granddaughter was tragically killed in a car accident on the way home from the kick-off concert the night before. Sepp Blatter's first words at the opening ceremonies reflected his backwards-looking obsession: "A dream came true even if he's not here tonight, but the spirit of Mandela is in Soccer City," he said about the president who left office more than a decade ago, while standing right next to the current South African president.

Ronaldo did, however, manage to get his photo-op with Mandela. A few days before the opening, the Portugal star dropped by for a visit and posed for this photo that revealed Mandela's current condition. The image should have convinced any gracious FIFA president to respect Mandela's wishes to watch the World Cup from home.

Of course, the admiration for Mandela is deserved, and it is no wonder that he continues to inspire. But the Mandela they wanted is a one-dimensional caricature of the living saint who saved the nation from certain civil war through a noble commitment to the principle of non-violence, even despite his own suffering for 27 years as a political prisoner. This familiar but simplistic portrayal conceals a more complicated reality of a typically human life marked by surprisingly reconcilable contradictions. Mandela was in fact the first commander of the armed wing of the African National Congress. And while he was imprisoned, the apartheid state offered to release him in the mid-1980s in exchange for renouncing violence in the movement against apartheid. He refused and remained in prison, probably assessing that he would have lost legitimacy from the masses in Soweto and elsewhere who might have seen him as out of touch with the violent repression they experienced daily in the townships.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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