This is Africa’s decade.
The decade when the continent’s potential will be recognized and rewarded.
True, that statement is reminiscent of former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier saying the 20th century would belong to Canada (or, more specifically, that Canada would fill the 20th century).
But all the stars are aligned for Africa’s coming out party, kicking off next week with the biggest of all parties, soccer’s World Cup.
For centuries, Africa has struggled to shake off the loathsome “Dark Continent” status of victimhood due to slavery, famine, disease and self-destruction through endless wars.
This negativity is bolstered by a continuous stream of media images of starving babies, people dying of AIDS, political persecution and more.
The World Cup is a sporting extravaganza that also guarantees the media spotlight, but the focus this time will be on what Africa has never been allowed to display–its innovative and playful side.
Not only will we see enthusiastic fans blowing vuvuzelas and playing drums in the stands or singing and dancing in cultural ensembles, we’ll see African kids wearing Lionel Messi shirts and mimicking Ronaldo.
The point is, South Africans (and millions of other Africans) will portray an Africa that is content, sophisticated and–most importantly–has great potential.
Frontier of innovation
Earlier this year, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) declared Africa a new frontier of innovation, boasting a reservoir of young talent, a growing market for cutting-edge technologies, and a source of fresh ideas.
Anybody heard of Maasai cattlemen who trade their stocks on cellphones from deep in the country?
This is why the significance of the World Cup goes beyond South Africa’s capability to host it.
It is a litmus test for the continent’s capacity and ability to carry the heavy loads of global business and politics.
Africans want to display their readiness to be engaged as equals in investment and trade. They want a seat at the world affairs table and a right to lead in other important global issues.
In terms of play, Africa wants to ensure it gets another chance to host another major cultural or sporting event like the Olympics, in the not too distant future.
Of course, there is no guarantee the world’s view of Africa will suddenly change because the continent is hosting the World Cup.
However, success in this respect will earn Africa a right to pose singer Adam Lambert’s question: “What do you want from me?”
If Africa can be entrusted, for a full month, with billions (if not trillions) of dollars worth of investment in the world’s biggest sporting event, and handle it successfully, why can’t it be trusted with protecting lesser forms of investment, or making key decisions on world affairs?
This is the significance of the World Cup–beyond the last match on July 11.
However, there is a flip side. What if Africa’s perceived ineptitude manifests itself through, say, inadequate security for the teams, such as the ambush of the Togolese team in Angola in January?
Something like that would not only mar the World Cup, but embolden the prevailing view that Africa is not prepared for responsibility.
A forgettable World Cup could dump Africa back into the dark recesses of world perception. The light might not return for a long time.
One hopes those in charge know they hold the destiny of a continent in their hands and the slightest slip-up could mean the difference between a decade when Africa claims its rightful position in world affairs and one where it regresses.
That said, the challenge is also upon the rest of the world to see beyond football and discover the real Africa.