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.

The speculation about his possible appearance at the opening seemed driven mainly by the desire of people outside South Africa to see the story they were looking for. Many South Africans feel that he deserves a break from a life of pageantry, but there may also be an element of Mandela fatigue. In South Africa itself, his symbolic power is increasingly diluted as the ever-expanding iconography has seen him plastered everywhere--on handbags, clocks, and coasters. The metropolitan region encompassing the city of Port Elizabeth has been rechristened Nelson Mandela Bay. A 20-foot statue of Mandela was erected to celebrate the renaming of an upscale shopping mall in Joburg. A new cookbook thematically organized around Mandela's life story has the excessively clever title, Hunger for Freedom. Even his inmate number, 46664, has been branded as a numeric code for everything from raising money for HIV treatment to a new line of Adidas gear.

It is not necessarily unusual that historical icons are simplified, depoliticized, and stripped of symbolic significance. What is remarkable about the Mandela mania, however, is that this has all been happening while he is still alive. There are already calls for public holiday on his birthday--an act that would normally be reserved until the passing of a national hero. When that inevitable day does come, it almost seems as if the only things left to rename in his honor will be the currency or the country itself.

The narrative that FIFA was looking for --and indeed that was used to win them over to South Africa for 2010--is a story from a different time. South Africa has moved into a post-Mandela era, one that is neither profoundly different nor essentially the same as the old South Africa, especially in terms of inequality. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, complicated the unchallenged moral authority that the presidency attained under President Mandela. Mbeki will be most remembered for his fatally stubborn and failed leadership on AIDS, before he was unceremoniously removed by his own party before completing his second term. The current president, Jacob Zuma, miraculously dodged convictions on both charges of corruption and rape before taking office last year. The economy has shown decent growth, but unemployment remains high. Extraordinary levels of racial inequality persist, but a growing class divide among black South Africans has meant that some upper-class Africans have seen their circumstances improve. And a new generation born after the first free elections in 1994--known here as the "born frees"--is coming of age without any memory of Mandela as a political prisoner, a liberation hero, or an elected president.

For all of the obvious significance of the World Cup opening in Soweto, it seems unreal that the topic that has come to dominate after the first few days is about the vuvuzelas. The plastic horns are loud. A lot of people blow them during the matches. You can hear them while watching the match on TV. Somehow, complaining about the vuvuzelas has become fodder for endless uninspired commentary.

For all of the billions of rands that South Africa spent on building and upgrading 10 stadiums (none of which will host more than eight football matches; some as few as four), you would think South Africans should at least be able to blow their own horns. I've watched most of the matches so far, and I am totally baffled by the complaints that the sound is preventing people from following the action. (P.S. If you tried to watch either the France-Uruguay or Italy-Paraguay matches but were distracted by the sounds, some of those vuvuzela blasts may have been mine.)

But the issue has now become a slate onto which much deeper tensions are being projected, as the trivial vuvuzelas have been imbued with so much meaning. Some Africans see the calls for banning the vuvuzela as a colonial attempt to muzzle an indigenous tradition, so as to make the experience more pleasurable for TV viewers in the West. FIFA President Sepp Blatter has given an ultra-P.C. response to the complaints, "we should not try to Europeanise an African World Cup," and "I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound."

The debate seems particularly bizarre considering that the depiction of vuvuzelas as a traditional African practice seem specious, at best. They have only been mass produced for football fans here within the last 10 years. What's more, so many of the folks blasting the vuvuzelas around town and at the matches are indeed foreigners, showing perhaps that it is not an exclusively African urge to blow a loud horn when given the chance. They'll take the vuvuzelas with them back home, where they can easily be reproduced and adopted by fans there. Through the international diffusion of the vuvuzela, 2010 may well alter the future sound of soccer around the world.

In person, the loud blare of the vuvuzelas sound less like the swarming bees heard through the TV--they are often energizing, sometimes maddening. But the drone of criticism--erroneous doubts about SA's readiness to host the World Cup, unfounded worries about extreme crime, and now complaints about something so trivial as vuvuzelas--is much more annoying.

No doubt that it's not the story that FIFA wanted. Maybe the character at the center of this new narrative should be Neil van Schalkwyk, an entrepreneur who has profitably manufactured the plastic vuvuzela and is now turning to a new moneymaker: earplugs.