Ghana and the Fragile World-Cup Pan-Africanism

Hua's note: Uncomfortable moment last weekend as some friends and I watched the United States-Ghana match at a bar in Manhattan: a supporter of the former urged our boys on by yelling, "Come on, white!" She was referring to the U.S. squad's all-white strip, but still.

Ghana's Black Stars -- who will play Uruguay at 2:30 EST on Friday -- will not let you forget who it is you are rooting for. And now, as guest blogger Anmol explains, they have an entire continent behind them, at least for the time being, at least when it comes to football. But what do these continental good vibes actually mean?

By Anmol Chaddha

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA---By the end of the group round last Friday, all but one African team had been eliminated. For the first World Cup held in Africa, this was a letdown. Only Ghana and South Africa even managed to win any matches -- SA's win over France put Les Bleus out of their misery, but would not be enough to take the hosts into the next round. While French legislators grilled team officials in hearings on their humiliating performance, Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan skipped the show trial and quickly announced that he would suspend  his team from international play for two years. We had been warned not to expect much from African sides, but the demands to represent for Africa may actually have created an even greater burden for the players. After Cote d'Ivoire was eliminated, an Ivorian player told the New York Times: "Expectations were huge and we owed it to ourselves to perform well, but the pressure has caused us more stress than anything else and inhibited our talents."

Just a day after the end of the group round, the tone changed abruptly. In a dramatic victory over the U.S. last Saturday, Ghana advanced to the quarterfinals and has already done as well as any African team ever has in the World Cup. Asamaoh Gyan's goal in extra time renewed hopes for African success, apparently united a continent behind Ghana, and ushered in a FIFA-inflected Pan-African moment. Former President Thabo Mbeki, who had receded from view after his own party recalled him in 2008, re-emerged this week to call on South Africans to back Ghana's Black Stars. While in office, Mbeki often promoted an African Renaissance involving achievements in culture, science, and politics to outweigh the problems often associated with Africa. No doubt, if Ghana were to beat Uruguay and become the first African team to advance to the semifinals, Mbeki would surely view their trajectory as part of his African Renaissance project.

Several provinces here are officially encouraging South Africans to fly the Ghanaian flag and wear their national colors. As the ultimate embrace, Nelson Mandela invited the Black Stars over for a visit this Saturday, probably hoping to celebrate a victory in the quarterfinals and to prep the team for a semifinal match next week.

At the risk of going down the soccer-explains-everything route, it is not a stretch to see that the pursuit of the Pan-African ideal has had an ongoing relationship with soccer on the continent. Soon after winning independence for Ghana in 1948, Kwame Nkrumah created the national football team as part of the project of postcolonial nation building. He named the team the 'Black Stars' after the ships commissioned by Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey to return black Americans 'back to Africa.'  The Africa Cup of Nations has been organized with regularity since it was first held in 1957, in the first years of post-colonial independence, and it has served as an important institution that has successfully coordinated activities across African nations for more than 50 years. Reflecting a collective identity and capacity for joint political action, the African teams all boycotted the 1966 World Cup to protest FIFA's process for qualifying for the tournament, which they viewed as unfairly disadvantaging teams from Africa.

The current solidarity between South Africa and Ghana stands in contrast to the wave of violent attacks in South Africa on immigrants from other African countries a few years ago. In May 2008, locals in townships near Johannesburg attacked migrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi. Over the next few weeks, the violence spread to other cities across the country, and the government had set up refugee camps to house migrants fleeing the attacks.

It is a mistake to see the support for Ghana as evidence of fading antagonism toward African migrants here. Leaders of the xenophobic attacks have issued ominous warnings to migrants of upcoming violence being planned once the World Cup ends and the world shifts its attention away from South Africa. Perhaps even those promoting violent attacks are invested in protecting South Africa's image during the World Cup and want the country to be seen as successful hosts. Or maybe they figure that a more severe crackdown is likely if they create problems during the World Cup. Expressions of Pan-African solidarity will last as long as Ghana stays in the tournament, but may only be fleeting after that.

Anmol Chaddha is currently a doctoral student of sociology and social policy at Harvard, with an interest in urban political economy, racial inequality, and urban policy. He is spending several months on a well-timed research trip to South Africa that just happens to overlap with the World Cup.

Elsewhere on this blog:
I wrote about the World Cup TV commercials, the vuvuzela-as-zeitgeist and the North Korean national squad. Anmol Chaddha considered the meaning of rooting for South Africa and R. Kelly's allegiances, Pete L'Official measured the dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case. Piotr Orlov recounted the beauty and tragedy of Dutch football. On the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, Anmol meditated on Mandela and the lines marked "out-of-bounds" by FIFA. Pete, on a quest for "authenticity," reported from up in the air. Bethelem Shoals dissected American rooting politics. Last week, I discussed boredom and webcams, what it means to have "heart," and the racial politics of France's early exit. Most recently, Chris Ryan crunched the numbers on Chile's run-and-shoot attack, Pete L'Official deconstructed football's iconic "talisman" and I stared deeply into the lavender-orange glow of Nike's new boots.