South Africa is on the brink of a horrific crisis that is now ricocheting into the cherished world of soccer. In recent weeks that country has seen a shocking uptick in tension and violence, defined by xenophobic attacks against immigrants and foreign nationals. These attacks have been mostly directed against people from Nigeria. This past week, over 400 people were arrested in Johannesburg for attacking businesses and setting fires, with many of the stores owned by people in the immigrant community. Out of concern over the prospect of reprisal violence, the South African government closed the country’s diplomatic offices in Nigeria. Tuesday and Wednesday saw South African–owned businesses attacked in Nigerian cities.
Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani wrote in an “Open Letter from Africa” for the BBC, “The Nigerian media seem to report at least one such incident every month, with numerous news outlets using the same telling headline: ‘Another Nigerian killed in South Africa.’… We hear that South Africans detest Nigerians because they believe we are criminals, are too loud, and our men steal their women.… Nigerians, on the other hand, believe that South Africans are simply jealous of us. Of our self confidence, and our ability to thrive and outshine.”
The root of this crisis, however, is chronic underemployment among South African youth and the very successful efforts to direct those frustrations onto the Nigerian people as well as other immigrants. There is the belief that Nigerian immigrants, willing to work for lower wages, will take South African jobs.
The fear by politicians and analysts is that this could lead to a repeat of 2008, when 62 were killed and more than 600 wounded in a spate of anti-immigrant violence.
Dewa Mavhinga, the Southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch, also blamed “ineffective/absent policing which breeds impunity” for the violence.
The tension has become so intense that sporting boycotts have become a part of the equation.
This week, first Zambia and then Madagascar pulled out of soccer matches against South Africa, both countries saying that this is an act of protest against the escalation of xenophobic violence in both Johannesburg and Pretoria.
The Football Association of Zambia issued the following pronouncement when it stepped away from the contest: “The [FAZ] regrets to inform members of the public that the international friendly match between Zambia and South Africa that was scheduled for National Heroes Stadium on Saturday, 7 September 2019 has been called off in view of the prevailing security concerns in South Africa.”
Madagascar was initially willing to take Zambia’s place, and South Africa’s new coach, Molefi Ntseki, attempted to rally South African fans to the contest and to leverage the match as a showcase of peace, saying that it could be an “opportunity to spread word of love and show solidarity with ‘our African brothers and sisters.’”
But solidarity was not on the mind of Madagascar. Instead, it was safety and protest. The Malagasy Football Federation issued its own statement, which pointed out that it had initially looked forward to the match. “However, after having agreed with Malagasy national institutions, in particular regarding the security of the delegation of Madagascar and Malagasy nationals in South Africa, it was found necessary and judicious to decline the invitation.”
These boycotts have raised the fears of the longtime South African Football Association president, Danny Jordaan. An inordinately powerful person in South African politics, Jordaan said, “The reality is both the Zambia and Madagascar games were called off against South Africa as a result of the violence. As a football association, country and people, we need to confront this. What we can never do is extract ourselves from the African continent. Our destiny and our future are bound to the continent.”
It’s a lovely sentiment. But until the economic concerns of the people are met and the immigrant rights organizations win the battle of how to organize for relief, soccer will continue to be a casualty.