The White Sports Writers’ Burden

The gun attack on the Togo football team has unleashed a torrent of fearmongering about the ‘Dark Continent’.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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The Angolan province of Cabinda, lying on southern Africa’s Atlantic coast, is separated from Angola itself by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Its sense of separateness is not limited to geography, however. For nearly 50 years the Front for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda (FLEC) has been fighting for the province’s independence, first against their Portuguese colonisers, and, since Angolan independence in 1975, as part of a protracted civil war. While Angola might have declared a state of peace in 2002, FLEC, itself riven by factions, has continued its fight for independence against the Luanda-based government. It is fair to say that the struggle for a separate Cabinda is not a conflict that has featured too often on global news bulletins. Until last Friday, that is,

In the course of being bussed from their DRC training camp into Cabinda to participate in this month’s African Cup of Nations, Togo’s national football team was ambushed by a seemingly FLEC-related armed group. It perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. In the area through which the Togolese cavalcade was travelling, foreigners have been kidnapped and sometimes killed. If reports are to be believed, the team had been advised to fly into Cabinda rather than travel by road. Still, nothing could have prepared them for their harrowing experience.

For around 30 minutes, their buses and cars were subjected to sustained machine-gun fire. Well-known footballers, such as Manchester City’s Emmanuel Adebayor, were forced to cower under their seats, as their armed police guards fought with the hooded shooters outside. The team eventually escaped, but not unscathed. A bus driver, the assistant coach and a media spokesman were killed, and several others, including goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale, were injured.

There’s no doubting it was a tragic incident. And, understandably, it has thrown a shadow over the African Cup of Nations (ACN), especially now that Togo will seemingly not compete. It is many other things also. It is an act of violence specific to a local conflict. And it was instigated by a specific group of people, in this case, it seems, a faction of FLEC. One thing it is not, however, is a ‘symbol’ – an embodiment of the unruly, untamed nature of a whole continent. Just as, for instance, the actions of Basque separatists ETA don’t reveal much about Belgium, Hungary or Italy or anywhere else in Europe, so this particular fire fight does not represent Africa.

Yet this is precisely the conflating, metonymical logic at work in the response of some in the West. No sooner had the story of the Togo football team’s armed confrontation emerged than Africa itself came into the equation. This wasn’t an incident to be understood in terms of Angola – it was to be understood in terms of some idea of Africa as a whole. Hence, intuitively, thoughtlessly, this year’s World Cup in South Africa, a country as far away from Angola as London is from Kiev, was immediately called into doubt. ‘Are you concerned about violence at this year’s World Cup?’ asked the Wall Street Journal (1). The Canadian Press agency certainly was: ‘The gun attack on Togo’s national soccer team in Angola has again highlighted the security issues facing South Africa as it prepares to host the World Cup later this year.’ (2)

Back in the English Premier League, Hull City manager Phil Brown quickly offered his tan-addled opinion: ‘This throws a question mark against next summer’s World Cup.’ (3) German football league (DFL) president, Reinhard Rauball, explained why: ‘We can’t simply say that South Africa is something else than Angola.’ (4)

Er, yes we can: it is a different country, just as Spain is different to England, or Germany to Greece. The political conflicts of one country do not necessarily reveal much about the state of another. Yet such distinctions are precisely what too many in the West are prepared to ignore, as if Africa was just one undifferentiated mass rather than an aggregate of 54 countries as different as Morocco, Egypt or Ethiopia. Although trying to ease Westerners’ anxieties, FIFA president Sepp Blatter indulged in the same patronising logic. ‘I have faith in Africa, and it is with this faith that together we will organise world football’s showcase event in 2010’, he said (5). Whether Africa is viewed as a good child or an unruly one makes little difference: it remains the object of Western projection, a continent as dark and mysterious as it ever was.

This ignorance, this absence of knowledge, allows Africa, under the anxious eyes of the West, to become a source of threat, a stage upon which the idea of terrorism can flourish. Little wonder that a Guardian sports writer argues that the violence specific to Angola is actually a general problem, an act that can happen anywhere at anytime – especially in Africa. ‘This kind of violence is now portable’, he writes, probably in between wiping his palms: ‘It gets on planes and comes in by land and sea. It follows its targets across frontiers.’ (6)

As the use of noun ‘it’ suggests, terrorism here is not a particular means, it is a self-perpetuating agency, a force that operates apart from specific people and specific places as an end in itself. In the words of The Economist, ‘around the world… people are again wondering if Africa is safe… [T]he assault on the Togolese team, coming so soon after last year’s horrific attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan, in which eight people died, is bound to fuel fears that international sporting events are particularly vulnerable to terrorist groups hoping for global publicity.’ (7)

Terrorism, in this sense, is a general threat, a possibility all too easily imagined within the decontextualised idea of Africa. Never likely to pass up the chance to shoot for goal, entrepreneurs in the fear industry have been quick to seize their chance. According to the sometime-UN-funded Institute for Security Studies, ‘When star football teams from places like Brazil and England turn up, it could be a gift to aggressors like this.’ Anxious not to limit the threat to footballers, they argue that supporters, too, especially when gathering ‘by the big TV screens at fan parks’, are at risk: ‘What better opportunity for a troublemaker to do damage?’ (8)

Neil Thompson of red24, a UK-based global security company, pointed to the immense potential for atrocity that Africa allegedly offers: ‘If you look at everything the terrorists want, in South Africa they’ve got porous borders and easy access to weapons and explosives.’ (9) Rather than a coming together of the best footballers in the world, the World Cup promises to be a celebration of the world’s best security firms.

All this has little to do with the actuality of South Africa. The terrorist act here, whether the ambush of a team coach in Angola or the planting of bomb in a ‘fan park’ in Johannesburg, has no meaning apart from its possibility – the fact that it could happen. Often the object of Western pity (as the renditions of Live Aid show), Africa, it seems, is also the object of Western fears – parts of the Third World remain, in Kipling’s words, ‘half-devil, half-child’. It is a place in which the unthinkable can be thought, in which terrorism, as faceless and nameless as its protagonists, can explode out of the blue. Whether it’s Angola or South Africa is seemingly of little import; such is the force of Western fear that only Western phantasms can be seen.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill was critical of the coverage of the war in Congo in 2008. Barrie Collins argued that attacks on France for its role in the 1994 war in Rwanda obscured the truth about the genocide. Earlier, he reported from the waiting room of the Rwandan genocide tribunal. Tara McCormack criticised the indictment of Sudanase President Omar al-Bashir for genocide. Julie Hearn looked at Kenya and the myth of Afrian barbarism. Elsewhere, Patrick Hayes looked at the myth of Afghan terrorism. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) Are you concerned about violence at this summer’s World Cup?, Wall Street Journal

(2) Bus attack on Togo’s national team highlights security concerns in S.Africa, CP24, 10 January 2010

(3) 2010 World Cup question marks after Togo attack, says Hull’s Phil Brown, Telegraph, 9 January 2010

(4) Germany to rethink World Cup security, Times Live, 11 January 2010

(5) The Monday Briefing – Arrests After Togo Attack; South Africa Defends World Cup Security, World Footballer Insider, 11 January 2010

(6) Sport’s immunity has been stripped away and the danger is very real, Guardian, 11 January 2010

(7) A deadly game, Economist, 11 January 2010

(8) Angola attack raises awareness of World Cup terror threat, Guardian, 11 January 2010

(9) Angola attack raises awareness of World Cup terror threat, Guardian, 11 January 2010

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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