Monday, July 26, 2010

A Mega Event Babalas (Hangover)

Beyond the focused pain ('carpenters in the forehead', in the Danish vernacular) and cerebral fog, a hangover can inspire acute feelings of emptiness and self-loathing. But it can also engender a kind of pure, unfiltered reflection—can help hasten and illuminate signposts to a deeper understanding of who and where we are.

The reckoning occasioned by the conclusion of the World Cup is in one sense simply the continuation of a reckoning that began in 2004, when it was announced that South Africa would host the 2010 competition. From the outset, facile celebrations of footballing universality and Rainbow Nation cosmopolitanism were met with various denunciations, volleyed from both left and right, that declared the event either a colossal waste of precious resources or beyond the organizational capabilities of the 'immature' new South Africa. In the event's wake, this simplistic exchange continues apace. The actual experience of the tournament, though, has helped to expose the myopia of both vantages, and has demonstrated the urgency in adopting a more nuanced approach. The roundtable conversation between Eric Worby and Kamilla Swart, chaired by Julia Hornberger, was undertaken in the latter spirit.

Kamilla Swart has played a leadership role in the 2010 Research Agenda, a data-finding initiative concerned with measuring the immediate economic impact of the event and reflecting upon the potential of its long-term legacy. Concrete conclusions, she allowed, are at this early stage difficult to assert. FIFA's financial maneuverings are notoriously cryptic. The South African government has likewise been coy about the affinity or not between its own forecasts and after-the-event assessments; to cite just one example, the “Bid Document” that made the case for South Africa as World Cup host was only released into the public domain during the event itself.

Eric Worby's remarks elaborated upon three prompts: FIFA as the enforcer and beneficiary of a latter-day politics of concession—the ways in which the host nation cedes aspects of its sovereign power to football's governing body; the complex negotiations of race, nation, and aesthetic gratification that rationalize our attachment to one side or another as the tournament progresses; the notion of Bafana Bafana as a 'good loser'—the moral authority that is thought to derive from this identification, and the fraught psychic politics it evokes.

If the lead-up to the event within South Africa was characterized by a profound state of anxiety—coupled, of course, with feverish anticipation—the prevailing mood of the aftermath, Eric suggested, is an ambivalent introspection: are we still at the stage of the not-yet, or have we arrived? Equivocation on this point should not be equated with a crisis of self-confidence or with a retreat to fatalism. Indeed, the 'not-yet' can be inhabited as a moment of perpetual becoming, a space wherein a critical disposition toward the present stands beside and speaks in rhythm with utopian intonations of what might come. If we are, in good faith, to pronounce the World Cup a 'success', it will be because the event broadened our understanding of the possible, at the same time it renewed our commitment to the labor demanded by that possibility.

In the ensuing conversation, Achille Mbembe spoke of the new, more mutable articulations of public and private space, and the new, more inventive languages of collective self-narration, that acquired embryonic form during the event. The political consequence of these tentative expressions of newness might not reveal itself for some time, and whatever causal relation we eventually identify—between the experience of the event and social evolution in its aftermath—will inevitably be speculative.

What happened inside the stadia, on the official fields of play, might be the most enduring source of inspiration, because it is the one we can most readily relive. On 20 June I visited Soccer City to witness the group-stage encounter between Brazil and Cote d'Ivoire. Cote d'Ivoire were frustrated and Brazil were sumptuous, before the match devolved at its close into mutual remonstration and melodrama. The next morning, where I was staying in Jabavu, Soweto, some neighborhood kids and I attempted a reenactment of Luis Fabiano's brilliant second goal—scored with the help of his hand, he would later confess—and other moments from the match that will evolve even as they are etched in cultural memory. Mimicry, as Derek Walcott once observed, can be an act of imagination too.

Eli Jelly-Schapiro

More writing on the world cup by Eli Jelly-Schapiro is available at: http://www.socialtextjournal.org/cgi-bin/mt/mt-cp.cgi?__mode=view&blog_id=6&id=221.