International relations and diplomacy: Reflections on SA 2010 and the power of sports

by Kombe Kapatamoyo a former graduate student at Ohio University. Kombe is currently a PhD student at West Virginia University.

The World Cup next year will be South Africa’s largest sports event. It will not only bring many nations together in one part of the world, but the world’s attention will be focused on this particular country. Because of the attention received, many nations have used such sports events for political reasons. Now, South Africa as a host of the 2010 World Cup has the rare opportunity to foster beneficial economic and political relations with the visiting countries. This article seeks to highlight the role of sports in the consolidation of intranational and international relations.

Sports are a universal enterprise of all nations. The fans love the competition, love cheering for their favorite teams and just enjoy an atmosphere that is a break from daily issues. The great thing about sports is that it can be a pure pursuit that has a common basis. Therefore, sports can rise above international politics. Using football as an example, a player from Saudi Arabia will play the game in the same manner that a player from Mauritius or South Africa will. This gives an instant and common foundation that people can build relations on.  One might argue that sport is perhaps one of the few spheres where nations can wage war against one another and its over after 90 minutes, at least for football. In the one month it takes to complete the world cup, teams will compete to claim the prestigious title of World Champions. Competing nations invest a lot in these competitions and the fervency with which nations support their teams is almost as intense as waging a war between states.

Sports have also become a method for countries that are facing internal struggles to start diplomatic relations.  For instance, while Ivory Coast was going through qualification for the 2006 World Cup, its National Football Association was hesitant to support the team due to the political turmoil within the country that began in 2002. However, the Ivorian football team wanted to end the divide of the nation between north and south and believed that participation in the World Cup would bridge this divide.

At this point in time, we have a chance to seize upon the World Cup as a method to showcase to the world the power of South Africa as a nation and Africa as a continent. The notion that nations use international tournaments, like the Olympics and the Football World Cup as a platform to exercise ‘soft power’ is worth examining. The US in 1936 had Jesse Owens, an African–American man; participate in the Olympics as a sign to the German government of their lack of support for the Nazi regime and its anti-Semitic policies.  As the World Cup has worldwide media that follow the month-long event, how will South Africa together with her African partners use this opportunity to reveal the deep hope for a brighter future that most Africans have? How can this tournament be used to demonstrate the pride and dignity of a continent whose history, pride, dignity and innovation has long been undermined in international relations? How can this continent which has given birth to Mandela, Nkrumah, Biko, Mogae, Lumumba, Madikizela-Mandela, Annan and many other heroes show the world that so called ‘soft power’ is indeed good for the whole world not just Africans?

In light of the role that sports have played in international relations in the past, South Africa’s successful bid to host the World Cup has shown the country has come a long way since the days of apartheid. It has also given South Africa the opportunity to divert the focus from ongoing problems such as wars in Sudan and DRC, stagnant economies in different African countries and citizens who still lack basic amenities. This doesn’t mean that these challenges should be ignored, but this is an opportunity to show that change has also come to Africa through South Africa.

Additionally, the world cup is being held in one of Africa’s fastest growing economies therefore  it is important to note the huge potential that South Africa brings to the table in terms of politics, economy and other areas that can foster development. For instance, on December 7th 2009, President Zuma visited his counter part President Banda of Zambia to establish and renew standing Memorandum of Understanding in the manufacturing, education and health sectors. This can be extended further not just to the SADC region but also to the entire continent and globe as well. Having risen from a past that was devastating on more than half of its population, South Africa can take the lead in roles of mediation and conflict resolution – the cases of Zimbabwe and Sudan, it can also solidify its role on the international scene as a heavy weight in international relations.

More questions will always be raised than answered when looking at an issue like the strength of a nation in international diplomacy and international relations. South Africa by being host of footballs’ greatest event must highlight the good that has been achieved in the country and on the entire continent. From successful democratic elections in Ghana, establishment of a government of unity in Kenya and the weathering of the economic crunch in emerging and established economies like Botswana and South Africa itself, Africa has and is still a resilient continent to contend with in all spheres.  Also, not only should the spotlight be on national governments but also on individuals that have dedicated their life’s work to the betterment of others. For instance, initiatives such as ‘The Elders’ brought together by Mandela is one that can be highlighted as one that has reaches outside Africa to the rest of the world.

Globalization has proved that politics of isolation are things of the past. International relations and diplomacy through sports and other mediums are the tools needed to forge a strong rainbow nation and continent. Regardless of the inroads we have made since the end of apartheid, South Africa has the opportunity in the World Cup to act as a shining beacon on the continent and once again, raise our voices in articulating Africa’s issues. As the song “My African Dream” states for Africa “there’s a new tomorrow…there’s a dream that we can follow.” And just like the slogan says, “Its Africa’s turn”.


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