Heading into the 2010 Fifa World Cup quarterfinals, South Africa was a nation clawing at its lost pan-African footing. But BaGhana BaGhana crafted Mzansi’s moment of redemption.
It is near impossible to find a more fitting moment to grant pan-African meaning to the 2010 Fifa World Cup than the national zeitgeist ahead of the quarterfinal match between Ghana and Uruguay. It was as if the key elements of contemporary South African history had conspired to create an epoch-defining event from a singular football match.
Bafana Bafana, the host team, were out of the tournament. Ghana’s Black Stars were daring to rise to the occasion and carry the flag for the African continent. The West African giants were to square off against Uruguay, a deceptively dangerous South American team. This was in part because lead striker Luis Suarez was buoyed after winning Dutch Footballer of the Year, plus being named Ajax Amsterdam’s Player of the Year and finishing as the club’s top goalscorer for the previous two seasons.
The impact of Ghana’s rise in South Africa was arguably set up in the fires lit in March 2008 when seven people, including Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and a Somali, died after their shops and shacks were set alight in Atteridgeville, a township on the western edge of Pretoria. According to Human Rights Watch, the wave of xenophobic attacks that followed claimed 44 lives and displaced 20 000 people before the end of that month. The police arrested more than 500 people on charges of public violence, malicious damage to property and grievous bodily harm.
The carnage of that season gained a larger symbolism for other reasons, too. In December 2007, then president Thabo Mbeki, who had been seen as a pan-African president, lost his bid for re-election to Jacob Zuma. The latter had gained a reputation as a proud Zulu provincialist, posturing that was used by some to signal the end of Mbeki’s internationalist misadventures. His African Renaissance dream, along with its economic development programme the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and other investments somewhere far in the amorphous north were done. Zuma’s rising rule would usher in an age that rewarded localism at best and ethnic triumphalism at worst. The ANC recalled Mbeki from office and he would not open the tournament he was central and instrumental in securing.
As the world descended on Johannesburg for football’s grandest jamboree, the land of the fallen rand found itself needing to articulate its place on the continent. A great schism was at hand. While pundits on the right said it should be understood as a nation-building exercise, others on the centre left campaigned for the tournament to be celebrated as Africa’s first Fifa World Cup.
However, as the tournament headed towards the quarterfinals, fans and patriots from across the continent needed a winning hero to stand behind. South Africa, the host country, had been knocked out along with other African teams like Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Algeria and Cameroon.
Ghana’s Black Stars were the only Afrian team left. They became willing and able heroes. Amid the euphoria and pregnant expectation, a larger narrative began to emerge around how the team was mythologised by football-loving South Africans.
The birth of BaGhana BaGhana
Suddenly, The Black Stars were being dubbed BaGhana BaGhana, inheriting the mettle of host country team Bafana Bafana. Officials were reportedly seen distributing Ghanaian flags to fans and passers-by on the streets. Some ANC leaders encouraged the team to change its nickname to the Black Stars of Africa and then Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane waxed lyrical about how “we need to sustain this [pan-African patriotic] feeling of unity after the tournament ends on 11 July”.
Mbeki wrote a letter of congratulation to the head of the Ghana Football Association, with a message of encouragement to the team and coaching staff. In the letter, he lauded the Black Stars for the role Ghana had played as an eminent leader of the people of Africa and the African diaspora. Ghana, the home of political leader Kwame Nkrumah, is a key piece in Pan-African history. As the first country to gain independence from colonial rulers, it was fitting that Ghana would also carry the African flag into a potential first World Cup championship.
In Sunnyside, Pretoria, the streets were alive with a palpable and unique euphoria. The infamous tenement suburb is often called Little Lagos because of the high concentration of Nigerian expats who’ve settled there. However, on the eve of Ghana’s clash, Sunnyside had become Small Kumasi.
Every Ghanaian in the know and their South African friend gathered at a raucous little keep called Her Majesty’s. The tavern-cum-eatery run by financier Daniel Adjetey and chef Frank Afranie was ceremoniously renamed Ghana Bar for “serving the best Ghananian food in town”.
As football mania took hold, the bar section was abuzz with thumping house music, beer bottles competing with ashtrays and vuvuzelas atop tables. In the slightly empty eating court, Ghanaian music relaxed patrons dining on home-country cuisine atop African-flag tablecloths. The music of Castro, KK Fosu and some highlife kept heads bobbing back and forth, and colourful characters kept declaring their allegiance in anticipation of a much-needed African victory. “Viva BaGhana BaGhana!” was the unifying chant.
The grand inauguration of Ghana as a new South Africa played out in food. Instead of mealie meal and braaied meat, Afranie insisted on fufu, which looks like pap but has the texture of dough, and soup. He served it with goat meat soup. The meat was indiscriminate, with liver and rib chops in a single serving. Fufu is to be eaten with bare hands. “So you know, if the food is too hot for your fingers, then it’s too hot for your mouth,” said Afranie, laughing. It’s game on.
Pausing South Africans’ xenophobic sensibilities
Afranie said to “take a glass jar of water man … you no like?” Fufu proved too chewy for a man raised on pap. Afranie had other specialties. Favoured meals included jollof rice and chicken for R30, banku and okoro soup for R30, and fufu and goat pepper soup for R40. These are clearly 2010 prices.
There was friendly laughter from the regulars. Among them an expat called Joe Asidu, wearing a white football jersey with the tricolours and a star on the chest. “What I know is that our boys, BaGhana BaGhana, will win. I can’t talk a lot,” he said. “We only want two goals.” Kevin-Prince Boateng is going to score, he insisted, “even Asamoah Gyan is going to score. That’s it my brother.” He drank Castle Milk Stout, banging it on the table to make his point.
At 90 minutes, the historic game was tied at a gut-turning 1-1 that led to extra time. Then, for a brief moment, an African victory felt within reach. Alas, Suarez blocked a header that was meant to be the goal that sent the first African team into the semifinals. The Uruguayan striker blocked the ball controversially, on the goal line with his hands, denying Ghana a certain winning goal. The referee awarded a penalty that Gyan missed. The fate of the continent would be determined by a penalty shootout that saw Uruguay dash the hopes of the Black Stars, BaGhana BaGhana and Africa 4-2.
Hearts sank and spirits slumped, but a deeper continental consciousness held. For a foreseeable stretch, South Africa was at home on the continent. At least until the next wave of protests targeting African migrants derailed it all.