Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) opening ceremony with half-empty seats
Disclaimer alert: I don’t know all that much about football. I do have a team that I support from afar – Arsenal – because once upon a time they were the best-looking team in the English Premier League. And by team I mean Thierry Henry. Obviously, this was a really long time ago.
But I wish I could be as emotionally invested and as technically fluent in the game as others. I want, from a place deep down inside, to participate with my fellow frenzied fanatics in the highs from our teams’ victories. I imagine even those inevitable lows from the losses have their place in the grander scheme of building that sense of belonging I envy. Instead I am one of those fickle punters in it for the pomp and fanfare more than anything. At the start of every international soccer sporting do, I’m almost always front and centre, enticed purely by the promise of occasion.
Now, before we talk about the current edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, travel back in time with me to the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup 2010: as far as entertainment value goes, the song and dance in South Africa preceding the World Cup delivered in spades. All stops were pulled out for the publicity and build-up, so much so that by the time R. Kelly and the Soweto Spiritual Choir (with their faux gospel chorus in Sign of a Victory) burst into song, the air was thick with emotion at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium before the actually matches themselves kicked off. On the previous night at Orlando Stadium, a 3-hour music extravaganza, while clumsy in bits, ignited a public display of euphoria. Crowds in their tens of thousands beamed at the world proud, jubilant, and as much the stars of the show as the top billing performers at the televised concert including Amadou and Mariam, Freshlyground, Vusi Mahlasela, Alicia Keys and BLK JKS.
In fairness, the mere months of preparation South Africa undertook after inheriting the privilege of hosting the Africa Cup from politically unstable Libya was no time at all against the six-year lead time it had in which to get ready for the 2010 World Cup and the peripheral activities. The latter, being the last competition of widespread international significance to take place on South African soil, pitched the bar for AFCON 2013 sky high.
A general view of the stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2013 African Cup of Nations
Africa Cup of Nations, 2013
Now, even I know that up until a few games ago, no one anticipated the South African team Bafana Bafana would advance all that far in the currently on-going tournament. Not even the South Africans themselves. All we’ve ever really wanted from the host nation was a version of that spectacular revelry they served up three years ago – a grand old knees-up to rev up our collective patriotism and to keep in our hearts, however the scores turn out. I’m not sure how it was for the rest of the one billion viewers, but to me it looked like the spark of the moment got lost in transmission at the AFCON opening ceremony on the afternoon of 19th January. TV does that sometimes.
Fans enjoy the atmosphere during AFCON opening ceremony (Getty)
Singers Ayanda Nhlangothi, Siphokazi Mohapi and spoken word poet Afurukan performed in succession, jointly raising the curtain for a cluster of heavyweight musicians – South Africans Ringo Madlingozi, Sibongile Khumalo, Judith Sephuma, Kenya’s Eric Wainaina and Oumou Sangaré from Mali. They gave their all singing earnest, optimistic lyrics about power and freedom which dismantled the wall props on stage with words like ‘AIDS’ and ‘poverty’ scrawled on them (lest we forget, this is Africa…).
AIDS and poverty. Of course!
Then came a solo from South African 80s pop star Sipho Hotstix Mabuse performing Shikisha, one of his classics. You might recall that he led the charge decrying the presence of Western pop stars invited to perform at the World Cup opening concert. It looks like he got his wish this time around. There was no shortage of authenticity and theatrics here. The costumes were colourful and dramatic and the dancers spirited. But besides the tens of thousands of people conspicuously absent from the rows and rows of empty seats the cameras panned to every so often, something else was missing. Not to take anything away from Jazz veteran Khumalo’s musical direction or her esteemed line-up, but they were low on pop appeal.
Fans enjoy the atmosphere during the opening ceremony at the National Stadium on January 19, 2013 in Johannesburg
It’s hard to say a bad word about Lira, one of the most likeable people in the music business and certainly the most illustrious. From performing the opening ceremony finale she was being whisked off to the States for a couple of high profile dates including US president Obama’s inaugural ball.
Lira has come a long way from her days as the step-child R&B-leaning artist on predominantly kwaito label 999. Nowadays the multiple award-winning, platinum-selling, BET-nominated singer is not only one of South Africa’s most commercially successful artists, she has a wholesome - if middle-of-the-road - appeal that appears to stretch across the continent and in the diaspora. She sang Brenda Fassie’s Higher and Higher, rounding off with a dance sequence synchronised with a giant creepy Madiba doll, and then it was time for speeches about AIDS and education while we waited for Cape Verde’s Blue Sharks and Bafana Bafana’s inaugural game.
I’ve heard people express justifiable concern over the empty seats at the tournament and lay blame at the feet of South Africa’s local organising committee who, of course, could have done a far better job of things like facilitating ticketing and security logistics. But poor attendance at the Nations Cup is not a new problem. It seems to me that this is an Africa-wide problem, one whose solution might have something to do with the way the biggest regular sporting event hosted on the continent is promoted, or under-promoted. Much as we hate the corporates for what they did to Christmas or any of the other occasions we hold sacred, when we comes to competitive sport we need them.
Mobile phone technology specialists and AFCON sponsors Samsung have their eye firmly on Africa in their bid for world domination. To assist with their assault, they summoned Nigerian super producer Don Jazzy. Early in 2012 he unveiled a range of “Afro-pop” hi-fi units he designed for the brand. And a week before the tournament he released this track imaginatively titled The Samsung Football Anthem.
If anyone could have delivered a sound closer to the pulse of modern Africa, I would have thought this was our guy. But alas, this anthem is no Oliver Twist, so, understandably, I’ve not heard it on the radio in East or South Africa. In fact I’m not sure if it’s had much traction outside of the Naija blogosphere.
In contrast, it’s impossible to hear Shakira’s rendition of World Cup anthem Waka Waka with Freshlyground today without being transported back to 2010’s heady ambience. Same goes for K’Naan’s Wavin’ Flag.
It’s not realistic to hope anyone – South African fan or otherwise – will go and watch a soccer match as an act of charity. That’s why pleas like “support African football” make as little sense to me as “support local music”. People will gravitate towards wherever they feel there is a connection to be had. And is there a better lubricant for said connection than pop music? If, as is being bandied about, the interest in urban African music is at its highest level ever, then herein lies an opportunity to engage our touchy-feely sides, unite everyone and ultimately, as is the objective of most marketing exercises, buff up positive perceptions and associations in the long term. I say this thinking specifically of the unintentionally tiered line-up recently announced for the forth-coming Cape Town Jazz Festival: “2 Nights, Over 40 International & African Artists.”
Travelling by air in Africa is incredibly expensive, so you simply must offer anyone deliberating over whether to make the AFCON trip real bang for his/her buck. That means planning and promoting an experience that far transcends watching their chosen matches. We’ve all done that thing where we are done shopping but we stay in the store a bit longer, acting like we’re browsing when we are really just waiting for our favourite song that’s playing on the PA to end. This is pretty much the same thing, and I’m afraid South Africa failed in this respect. Let’s hope the host of the next edition (in 2015) learns from the somewhat damp squib of 2013.