Achille Mbembe on getting the most out of the World Cup

2010 SOCCER WORLD CUP: Where is the moral argument?

by Achille Mbembe

The spirit of instrumentalism

It is as if hosting this mega-event for the first time on the African soil is a purely practical matter – an opportunity for money-making – requiring no creativity or cultural imagination. Current debates are conducted as if building new infrastructures, renovating airports and stadiums, solving questions of transport and traffic, increasing the number of hotels and finding appropriate responses to security issues is all that were required to hold a successful World Cup.

Hardly anyone is asking questions about citizens’or popular participation – an ingredient without which there has not been, in recent memory, any successful such event. Not much is done in terms of bringing the event to the communities. Public information about the road map to the Cup itself is still found wanting.

If this instrumentalist logic persists, we are likely to organize a quite successful, if not original, Soccer World Cup. But the latter might be neither African, nor memorable. It is likely to benefit primarily FIFA, private local and international agencies and special interest groups. Would this happen, the South African taxpayer would have been the main subsidizer of what would be akin to the first major transnational financial scam of the 21st century.

The current spirit of instrumentalism extends to the cultural realm. There does not seem to be a coherent cultural and powerful moral proposition that would justify the colossal financial efforts the people of South Africa are putting into this event.

When Japan and Korea first organized the Olympics in 1964 and in 1988 respectively, they used this opportunity to market themselves as modern nations and to celebrate their progress towards the top of the industrialized world.

More recently, Korea used the World Cup to re-brand itself as an advanced post-modern society and economy. After all, Korea has one of the world’s best educated and most technology-savvy populations.

It had learnt from the 1988 Olympics that sports mega-events provide a major opportunity for attracting worldwide attention to the country’s products and services. It also understood that, due to the mediated nature of the event, the World Cup is about brand-making rather than direct money-making. And brand-making is fundamentally a cultural act.

Every indication is that “Africa, the cradle of humankind” will be the dominant theme of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. On the world scene, such platitudes will only further relegate the continent to the realm of folklore. Not only does such a theme smack of nativism, it does not say anything meaningful about who we are, who we want to be, and what our proposition for the world is.

That Bafana Bafana (the national football team) will not win this competition is a public secret. Now, if we cannot win on the soccer field and if our victory won’t be economic and financial, then we better start thinking hard about changing the very terms of what it means to win at all.

A powerful cultural and moral proposition

Lameck Nyagudi, On the Square, 2010Our victory can only be a cultural and moral victory. We will win the 2010 Soccer World Cup if we organize it in such a way that it powerfully contributes to changing the terms of Africa’s recognition in the world. If the 2010 World Cup succeeds in fundamentally altering the ways in which Africa’s voice is expressed and heard and Africa’s face is seen in the world, then this – and this alone – will morally justify the colossal amounts of public money spent on this very postcolonial and megalomaniac venture.

To be sure, it is not as if we have nothing to say. A struggle of universal significance has been fought here. The aim of this struggle was to ensure the victory of freedom over fate and to create, for the first time in the history of humankind, a civilization beyond race.

The belief was that the relationship with the future, the presence of the future in the present could only be accomplished in the face-to-face with the Other (the former enemy) and in the mutual recognition of each other’s humanity. Such was the powerful utopia that moved, all around the world, the global anti-apartheid movement.

This project is still unfinished. But the idea of mutual recognition and reciprocal humanity evidenced in the philosophy of the TRC, or in this country’s attempt to turn cells and torture chambers into courts of law and places of memory and hope – all of this is still the best gift our continent has ever given to the future of the humankind.

In the zone of obscurity our global present is, this is the story we are uniquely placed to tell and the promise our history has made us the messengers.

That we have not yet articulated such a message in a language of our own is due to a number of factors. First is the combination of empiricism and nativism referred to above, and which is itself a symptom of the intellectual lethargy and the cultural euthanasia currently affecting the country. Second is the instrumentalist logic and the market-driven mindset that prevails in business and bureaucratic decision-making circles in this country. Third is the marriage of populism, consumerism and superstition that is fast eroding the intellectual and moral fabric of this society.

Football and the global cultural economy

Indeed, since the end of apartheid, the law of greed and profit has superceded the law of value and meaning. In government, business circles and in the public mind prevails a poor understanding of what the current epoch of cultural globalization is all about.

Petty nationalism prevents us from coming to terms with the role football as a global cultural product plays in the new global cultural economy. Years of cultural boycott, intellectual isolation and the obscenity of white supremacy have hardly prepared us to creatively appraise what role mega-events such as the World Cup play in the global politics of culture.

Our ruling elite – and those who currently oppose it – do not seem to understand that one of the main features of contemporary capitalism is the increasing convergence of the cultural and the economic.

Today, cultural products of all sorts not only constitute a critical share of the output of modern capitalism. Culture-producing sectors of the economy represent some of the most dynamic growth industries in the world. They also constitute the central economic engines of a number of city-regions across the globe.

This is the reason why cities such as Paris, New York, Los-Angeles, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, or Seoul consistently play the cultural card as a way of promoting local business and job growth. In order to attract foreign investors, they do not simply liberalize their tax codes. They massively invest in culture (street life, museums, art galleries, libraries, universities, parks, restaurants and cafés, theatres and halls, squares, gardens and open spaces, educational and civic institutions).

Football per se is increasingly part of the wide range of cultural commodities which are the hallmark of globalization: electronic and consumer products, films and musical recordings, cable television services, software and multimedia production, satellite broadcasting systems and associated entertainment products, theme parks, sports teams, cosmetics and perfumes, clothing, furniture, jewelry, advertising, book publishing, theatre, avant-garde architecture, and so on.

The game of football has espoused the four main features of contemporary global capitalism: rampant speculation, the creation of new bundles of rights of ownership, the emergence of new commodity forms and possibilities for profit, and the dematerialization of labor. Global capitalism itself has undergone a cultural turn. In turn, global cultural circuits now constitute vibrant markets. Football is not simply one of these cultural commodities. The game has become one new modality of profit-making in the global sphere.

As an event, the World Cup is a business operation in this global cultural economy. It does not simply reflect the globalization of popular culture. Due to its ever-refined attractiveness to the commercial trinity of sponsors, advertisers, and television, football has become the ultimate global commodity and a portal to the world’s most distant regions.

If we want to make the best of this event, it is important for us to understand the nature of these shifts.

The production of images is one of the core characteristics of globalization. Today, the image is the commodity par excellence. It happens that the images and messages that most forcefully define our cultural environment and impinge the most on our daily existence are generated from somewhere else.

The 2010 Soccer World Cup will not solve the structural problems of poverty, disease, insecurity, crime and unemployment. Strictly speaking, the World Cup is just about the game as it is about performing capitalism in the sense of producing representations, images and signs that are sold to the world as commodities.

We should therefore use the tournament to contribute to altering the way in which we not only craft our own image of ourselves and our continent. We should use this opportunity to claim a share in the commercialized production of images for world markets.

But without a vigorous and concerted intellectual effort, cultural and artistic imagination, the right mix of entrepreneurial know-how, creative energy and public policy, we might realize that we have almost nothing to sell.

Contrary to what is the norm in Europe and the USA or Japan, our biggest corporations do not master the organizational complexities and creative verve that constitute the bedrock of global cultural production. Even worse, they show no interest whatsoever for the arts and the humanities. In the absence of proper institutional infrastructures, policies and strategies, the only images we might end up peddling will be the usual stereotypes of happy natives in leopard skin and beads, performing a so-called traditional culture they, in fact, are inventing almost from scratch, all of this in the midst of lions and elephants roaming the wild African landscape.

Urban renaissance

The tournament itself is first and foremost a city festival at the world-scale. A memorable World Cup is one that will herald an urban and cultural renaissance in South Africa. For this to happen, 2010 should be used as a stepping stone in fostering public culture, the arts and the humanities; in further de-racializing our cities, and in putting an end to the destruction of public space that was the hallmark of apartheid urbanism.

We should use this event to move away from the current process of “bantustanization” of urban space. We should also use it to reverse the militarization of city life that is fostered by the uncivil state of social warfare in which we have been forced into by high levels of crime, poverty and disease.

To be sure, shopping malls surrounded by staked metal fences and the ubiquitous “armed response” cannot be the only spaces where the public will conglomerate during the World Cup. A new concept of built public environment that fosters racial de-segregation and a culture of conviviality should be invented.

To properly host our African and foreign visitors as well as our own people, more squares, more pedestrian streets should be built. We need to take back our parks, turn our cities inside out and revert the current process whereby they are turned outside in.

We should also use the World Cup to counter the privatization of the urban public realm and its rampant colonization by property developers.

We will need a reformist vision of public space that includes, amongst others, a de-racialisation of our street names. We should make the streets themselves less desolate and less dangerous.

This implies substantial investments in public amenities and in public space and recreation. To turn back the clock on a decade of white and black middle-class demand for increased spatial and social insulation, we will need to shift fiscal resources from corporate-defined redevelopment priorities and end the subsidization of new, racist enclaves – in however benign terms they are described.

Zero tolerance

To be sure, this will require a very serious security effort. Our crime rates are too high and present a deadly risk to any foreign visitor. A rising arc of violence is engulfing our neighborhoods. The carnage is no longer self-contained in racial boundaries, as was the case under apartheid. It now tends to leak everywhere.

Crime is fast destroying the moral fabric of South African cities and is becoming the major threat to South Africa’s democracy as well as the not so hidden name of a “class war” which itself is, to a large extent, a continuation of the “race war” of yesterday.

We will organize a memorable Soccer World Cup if, by 2010, safety and security are no longer commodities defined by income access to private protective services or membership in some fortified residential enclave or restricted suburb, but truly public, democratic goods accessible to all.

We cannot organize a memorable Soccer World Cup if the fear and reality of violent death in the hands of criminals is not tackled efficiently. This might require a “zero tolerance policy” that does not criminalize the poor, but is unforgiving towards the criminal.

As for cash…

FIFA is the most likely to profit from the 2010 World Cup. The two main financial levers in the profit-making project of the FIFA World Cup are broadcasting rights and corporate sponsorship. During the 2002 World Cup, FIFA granted he worldwide broadcasting rights to a private sport-marketing group for a guaranteed minimum of US$ 800 million. In addition, 15 of the world’s leading companies paid an average of US$35 million to join the “FIFA partnership program” of sponsors.

That a company would pay such huge sums of money can only be explained by the opportunity to brand themselves as global players, especially for firms with head offices in the host region. For the 2002 World Cup, such companies included Toshiba, Fuji Xerox, Hyundai, Fuji Film, Gillette and Coca Cola.

The economies of the venue cities might also benefit. But it will be a profit of a different kind – a profit that is conditional on a long-term view of what these cities want to become long after the event has taken place.

There will definitely be a gap between forecast and actual impact. Because of our largely infrastructure-led vision of 2010, the event will benefit the construction industry and public works. But the World Cup is unlikely to be the growth engine it is purported to be unless we create the conditions for this to happen.

It will certainly not add any significant upward momentum to domestic consumption. People will buy a lot of television sets. Many retailers might nevertheless be disappointed. Instead of going to hotels, bars and restaurants, customers might stay home watching the TV broadcast games.

In addition to the construction sector, the sectors and commodities most likely to benefit from the World Cup are transport, media technology and subscriptions to related services such as sales of digital satellite TV sets, videocassette recorders. Other winners may include the producers of official world cup merchandise and the sellers of unlicensed replica shirts, the beer and wine industries.

As far as tourism is concerned, not all the viewers will flock to South Africa during or in the aftermath of the Cup. For instance, in 2002, Japan only witnessed an increase of 30,000 visitors over the period of the tournament. In Korea, spectator turnout was lower by an average of 5,500 per match. Tourism officials did not report any increase of visitors at all.

Whether SA media technology and other corporations will be able to use the event as a marketing vehicle remains to be seen. Very few SA firms figure in the world’s top 100 companies. They cannot spend huge amounts of money on a global advertising campaign. During the last World Cup in Korea, this is what a firm like Samsung did. It advertised globally for its mobile phones, computers and DVD players.

Official World Cup Sponsor, Korean Telecom, did the same and its brand recognition improved by 95 percent. SA companies of a certain size can take inspiration from the kind of traditional guerrilla-style advertising companies such as Nike are known for. This they can do by linking their names to a variety of cultural events surrounding the tournament.

In conclusion

The cultural impact of the World Cup on the host communities and the world at large could be tremendous provided we have a powerful moral argument to offer the world. This spectacular peak-time event will attract international media recognition for South Africa and hopefully for the continent.

This being the case, we should make of the event a large-scale cultural festival of mass popular and international appeal. Continental and diasporic artists, intellectuals, musicians, fashion designers, writers, architects, former football stars should be involved.

In face of the nihilistic vision of emptiness that is currently propelled by the “war on terror”, what exactly should we be celebrating if not a moment of cultural re-enchantement and political re-dedication to the project of a world free of the burden of race?

We should use this global event as a moment of cultural exuberance – a historic moment in the chronology of our life as a nation, the first modern Afropolitan nation, a universal nation.

2010 SOCCER WORLD CUP: Where is the moral argument? by Achille Mbembe was first published in Africultures.

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