Ayoba!: Reflections From South Africa’s World Cup
Derek Charles Catsam
University of Texas of the Permian Basin
“Ayoba!” It doesn’t have a perfect English translation. Some say it means “cool,” or “excellent,” or “awesome.” But it means more than that, and it may well have been the unofficial word of the World Cup that South Africa hosted to global acclaim.
“Ayoba” was, perhaps tellingly, also the center of South African mobile phone giant MTN’s ad campaign. MTN was a local sponsor for the cup, and their ubiquitous claim on television and radio and print ads was that “It’s Ayoba Time!” For this World Cup was about many things. But it was surely about trying to make a few bucks for everyone involved, from FIFA to the South African government, to sponsors like Coca Cola and Budweiser (and I’d like to apologize to the global community that descended upon South Africa on behalf of America for “The King of Beers” being the only option available at all World Cup venues) and MTN, to local businesses, street vendors, and everybody with a hustle. And that’s ok.
There was another phrase that was ubiquitous in marketing campaigns and elsewhere: “Ke Nako.” “It’s time.” Both proudly celebratory (think: “It’s Africa’s time to shine”) and defiant (“It’s about damned time!”) “Ke Nako!” is typical of South Africa in the post-1994 era, a combination of boosterism and self-justification, at once proudly demanding and desperately seeking the world’s approval.
This vaguely schizophrenic mindset is understandable given the pre-World Cup narrative, especially as it was spun in much of the rest of the world where opinion ranged from the vaguely skeptical to the overtly hostile. When the world’s media was not asking whether South Africa would be able to muddle through and carry out a successful tournament it was nakedly dismissive, certain that the entire month would be an utter fiasco. The British tabloids especially took pleasure in depicting the first World Cup in Africa as a disaster in the making in which tourists would need bullet- (and knife-) proof vests to brave games that would go off late if they went off at all. It is hardly hypersensitive to wonder just how much racism, latent and not-so-hidden, played in the pre-Cup Afro-pessimism.
But South Africans themselves adopted the optimistic pose while fearing the worst. After all, for all of the neo-colonialist scaremongering of Brits and much of the rest of the world, there were legitimate fears, even if it was too easy to overblow those fears. Crime was, is, and will continue to be a problem in South Africa. Infrastructural inconsistencies, delivery problems, and shoddy services, while not as ubiquitous as detractors might see in their grim fantasies, are very real. AIDS and other public health issues vex. Unemployment hovers at a seemingly intractable 25%. And on the political level, to which admittedly few tourists would pay any attention even if their perfervid political imaginations contributed to their grim fantasies, there are real questions about the governing ANC, which is beset with claims of corruption and occasional fears that the party is becoming too draconian for its own or the country’s good.
Furthermore, South Africa’s Local Organizing Committee (LOC) and FIFA, the sport’s governing body, consciously sold this Word Cup not only as South Africa’s, but also as the continent’s. And while this allowed South Africa to bask in the continent’s glow and to sell the continent and its mythology as part of the larger ad campaign, it also enabled the Afro-pessimists to spin their own racialized fantasies about the “Dark Continent” and all that the blinkered image of Africa in the western mind entails. That the West deserves a significant portion of the blame in some of the least savory aspects of contemporary African life was of little moment. And African leaders in particular have to shoulder their share of the blame for the continent’s image even if that image is in no small part due to the cartoonish depictions from an “if it bleeds, it leads” media culture that barely has the time of day even to cover Africa in any depth, never mind to the extent that would depict the continent with the variegated richness, positive and negative, that a continent of 53 nation states and nearly a billion people deserves.
South Africa, above all, sold its own history in easy-to-consume dollops in presenting its preferred image for this World Cup. The relentless grimness of apartheid giving way to the redemption of the “New South Africa,” what Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has called “The Rainbow Nation of God,” is essential in South Africa’s public vision of itself. If “Ayoba!” and “Ke Nako!” were the catchphrases of this World Cup, Nelson Mandela was its icon, its image, its chief salesman. And why not? What Mandela embodies may not reflect the exact reality of what South Africa is, but it surely represents what South Africa wants to be, and hosting a World Cup (or the Olympics, which might just be next for South Africa) is about nothing so much as a country presenting its idealized self for global consumption.
So how did South Africa do in the contest of dueling narratives?
By almost any measure, South Africa was “Ayoba!” Or as another popular South Africanism would have it, it was “lekker.” By spinning a cartoonish narrative, the doubters set the bar too low. By demanding that the world see its best side, South Africa set the bar just high enough. Soccer aficionados will debate the quality of this World Cup on the pitch – and there is much to debate, from the quality of the refereeing to the need for the use of goal line technology to the effect of the much-derided “jabulani” ball that Adidas introduced (or some would say foisted) on the players. But few can doubt that, in the quest for narrative, the true winners were the South African boosters, the LOC and the tourist board, the millions with their painted faces and their South African flags, the supporters of South Africa’s Bafana Bafana (“The Boys,” South Africa’s national squad) who embraced the world, and who in turn were embraced by the world.
For all of the boosterism and naked appeals to consumerism, for a month South Africa presented its best face, painted and ebullient, joyous and friendly, defiantly proud and desperate for approval. July 12 rolled around and South Africans were left to deal with the hangover. Unemployment and AIDS and crime and corruption and the hand-to-hand combat that characterizes South African politics (but that also make those politics more vibrant than most critical observers seem to grasp) would return to the fore almost immediately. But in the ongoing process of nation-building the World Cup proved to be a central pillar. Hosting the world’s biggest sporting event did not prove to be a panacea – only a fool or a huckster would have asserted that it would be – but it did prove another important incremental step in South Africa’s long post-Apartheid walk.
For just over one month in South Africa’s winter, the spirit of “Ayoba” and “Ke Nako” washed over South Africa and the world. For one month, anyway, it was, indeed, time for Africa. And it was indeed very, very Ayoba.