The scene was a World Cup quarter-final between Ghana and Uruguay. It turned out to be perhaps the most traumatic evening in the history of African football. With the score at 1-1 at the end of extra time, a header which was about to make Ghana’s Black Stars the first African team to reach the semi-final was handled on the goal-line by Uruguayan Luis Suarez. The resulting penalty was missed by Ghana’s striker Asamoah Gyan and Uruguay won a penalty shoot-out 4-2 to eliminate the Black Stars and Africa’s hopes of a top four finish. As Cameroon had done in Italy 20 years before, a talented African team had psyched itself out of reaching its potential.
Almost a decade later, the night remains a painful memory. Some of us have never forgiven Saurez and probably never will. The desire to blot it out of our minds may be one reason why no-one has ever remarked on the strange Pan-Africanism.
Ghana was the only African team left in the competition. The hosts, South Africa, were eliminated in the group stage (weaker host countries tend to face easier opponents in the group stage – Russia this year faced Egypt and Saudi Arabia – unless they are South Africa, which had to contend with two former World Cup winners, Uruguay and France) along with the continent’s other contenders. And so local support moved firmly to Ghana.
This was less obvious than it seems. South Africans’ attitude to the rest of the continent is deeply ambivalent: it is common to invoke Africa in arguments, less common to take seriously its people. Hostility to African immigrants is at least as virulent as in Europe. Ghanaians might be embraced as footballers but were unwelcome as new residents.
What made the solidarity more remarkable is that it crossed racial barriers. White South Africans, who attended the match in numbers, were almost universally cheering loudly for Ghana. This produced, inevitably, some odd sights.
I watched the match in a corporate box (they thought I was a journalist and I was no hurry to correct them) next to a financial journalist of British origin who did not seem a natural recruit to the anti-colonial struggle. He was wearing a Ghana scarf and shirt. My son, who supports the English team Wigan Athletic (he has an off-beat sense of humour) insisted on wearing his blue Wigan shirt whenever he watched a match featuring one of the team’s players. Since Ghana’s goalkeeper, Richard Kingson, played for Wigan, he wore the shirt. A very large white man in the next seat, who looked like he would be far more comfortable at a right-wing rally lamenting the end of apartheid, mistook it for a Uruguay shirt and harangued him for betraying Africa.
Anyone with a working knowledge of South Africa will know that a deep love of Africa’s people is not the norm among white citizens. Africans and their governments are often derided as warnings of what can go wrong when white people are not in charge. Inevitably, mainstream white attitudes also colour attitudes to African sports people – in those where whites still dominate, notably rugby and cricket, black players are often denigrated as beneficiaries of racial quotas. Football is often dismissed as a black sport and white interest in local leagues is low.
And yet that night’s show of white sporting Africanism was neither the first nor the last. In 1990, when Cameroon was the outstanding African team, tales were told of whites with strong Afrikaans accents (in the early 1990s these had much the same connotations as white Americans with broad Southern drawls) cheering loudly in bars for the African teams. In this tournament, the performance of African teams is discussed in anxious tones on white-run media which usually ignore the continent.
How to explain this? There are two reasons.
First, the point made earlier – that Africa is often a symbol. For many black South Africans who ignore the continent, it expresses black identity. To many whites, it lays a claim to part ownership of the country. During the last days of apartheid, it was common for government ideologues to insist that whites were as African – and so as entitled to be here – than anyone else. Much earlier, the first apartheid head of government, DF Malan, had tried to set up a Pan-African organisation – all the other members were colonial governments. So laying a claim to Africanness is important to the identity of many whites.
The second, which flows from the first, is that South Africa differs from many other racially divided societies in an important way – mainstream whites and blacks identify with the same country and continent, while harbouring very different ideas of what that identity means. They sing the same anthem, wave the same flag (white racists sometimes wave the old flag but this is now quite rare) and insist they are ‘proudly South African’. But for whites this means keeping alive as many of the patterns of the past as possible, for most blacks it means changing them.
Much the same can be said of attitudes to Africa. For blacks, it may be the continent of a constant struggle against domination – for many whites it is the place of game parks, wide expanses and a colonial lifestyle kept alive by money rather than armies.
The pan-African unity of that night hid very deep divisions – while it was common at the time to talk of the World Cup as a ‘unifier’, within weeks the racial divisions were back and Africa was again a counter in political arguments, not an object of sporting solidarity.
In South Africa, cheering for country and continent is common but the divisions which this hides remain. Whether that makes it easier or harder to end racial hierarchies is a debate for another time – but one which is urgently needed.