South Africa, Christianity and the World Cup

By Tinyiko Sam Maluleke
5 Jun 2010

During Edinburgh 2010, you’ve sometimes been wearing a South African football shirt and carrying around a vuvuzela (a traditional South African stadium horn). Can you tell us your motivation behind that?

I think the awarding of the FIFA World Cup to an African country for the first time is quite historic, because [it] is easily the biggest sporting event in the world. So I wanted to acknowledge and celebrate that, to start with.

Secondly, I wanted to emphasise the affirmation for, and of, Africa in the process. It’s a massive affirmation in a world where Africa has often been suspect and thought of negatively. This is one major morale boost for Africa.

More than that, I wore that shirt and brought the vuvuzela because Africa continues to be heard and seen in ways that Africa would not want to be heard and seen. And so I see the vuvuzela as a desperate attempt by Africa to be heard. It’s a very loud instrument, and probably much louder when you have thousands of people playing them. But here is a continent which continues to cry out for recognition, for dignity, to be interpreted positively.

I thought there was a connection between that desire and this conference, which happens now at a time when, as you know, the Global South (that is Africa, Asia, Latin America) happens to be the place where the Church is growing fastest, and there’s a lot of vibrant Christian mission going on there. So I was trying to make connections with all of these things.

So why do you think the Church is growing faster in the Global South than in the West?

It’s difficult to say. I think it’s because in that part of the world people do not have the long history of Christian presence with all the problems that have come with that. Let’s face it, Christian history is a chequered history. It includes the Crusades and the wars against Islam in the Middle Ages. It includes the two world wars that we saw in the last 100 years - these wars were perpetuated by and started by Christian nations. It includes the whole history of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was a “Christian” doctrine, albeit in history.

I think in the South, people do not have as chequered a history of Christianity as they have in the North, and for that reason there is still space for a positive affirmation and appropriation of Christianity. I think people feel freer to be Christian without the embarrassment you now find in Europe and elsewhere. Also, the notion of progress and development that tends to relegate religion to the private is something that I don’t think has quite succeeded to penetrate the thinking of people in the South.

You’ve written on your blog recently that you’d like to “postpone the World Cup.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?

The World Cup, like the Olympic Games and other big events, always comes to all the countries that bid for them with the question, “What happens next?” It’s a big question. And I think if you go to Greece today, the Greek are asking themselves that question in relation to the Olympic Games that were there. Even in the US there are the so-called legacy issues – what do you do? What do you do not only with the infrastructure built for the World Cup, but what do you do with the anti-climax as well as the memories from the World Cup.

For all of Africa you could argue that for the past ten years the whole of Africa has been looking forward to this event. It has become a national project, not only for South Africa, but for Botswana, for Zimbabwe, for all the countries in southern Africa. This has been the beacon towards which they have been travelling.

So I am concerned about what happens afterwards, because we don’t have anything as big as this as a project to look forward to. We don’t have a country that we need to liberate from colonialism – there’s no such project as that.

Within South Africa itself it’s very clear that initial attempts by people like Mbeke to focus our energies around the African renaissance, around the new arrangement of relations between African countries and European and North American countries, appear to be losing their grip on the national imagination. So that is why I worry.

I’m not complaining about the World Cup, I think it is an excellent opportunity. But it’s one that I wish we could extend and prolong for as long as possible.

How do you see the Church’s role in the World Cup, including addressing the increased problem of human trafficking? And what kind of role can the Church play in developing the future of South Africa?

I think there’s a lot of scope for churches to work with the World Cup. First of all, the World Cup is about hospitality, at least from an African point of view because it’s coming to Africa. So issues of hospitality become very important, and that’s where churches can assist the secular, more business-minded, touristy kind of understanding of what the value of this is. Churches can bring in a much more human touch to tourism so that it becomes hospitality and not just tourism.

The other thing I think churches can do as far as the World Cup is concerned, relates to the very issue you have raised – issues of vulnerability. The World Cup brings the rich from all over the world, but it also brings the poor. The marginalised, the vulnerable people, the sex workers, the hawkers from all over the world will come and sell whatever it is they are selling to make money. It becomes contested space as more people come to try and benefit. I think that the church should take care of those who can’t take care of themselves during this time.

The rich will find their five-star hotels, but poor people from other African countries, from Eastern Europe, from all over who will simply be trafficked to South Africa, will need to be protected. I happen to know that several churches, including the Council of Churches, have got projects set up to assist trafficked children, sex workers, to work with them during this time and try to be of assistance to them, so that it’s not only a World Cup of the rich and about the rich.

There is a biblical image that comes to mind, in Luke 16 - the story of Lazarus being outside the gate. The thing about the World Cup is that there will be many people outside the stadium who will not be able to go in, either because of cost or out of pure numbers. There will be people without electricity to have televisions out of which to watch the matches. I think this is where churches can come in and assist.

But finally, I think the critical question is what can the church do to extend what is good about the World Cup beyond the one month event. I think that the Church is in the business of vision, and the Church has to assist in the creation of a vision that is larger than the World Cup, that is positive, that is more long-lasting than just a month.

Do you think that football is the modern religion?

Football is a form of religion. I think that it is a poor form of religion compared to Christianity, which for me is a real religion. It certainly does move people in particular ways and is borrowing more and more from religion in terms of the singing that goes on and even the abandon with which people approach soccer.

All of these are very powerful emotions – nationalism, hero-worship – these are elements of religion. It is a quasi-religion in many ways. I think that it’s important for us as churches to remind everyone that it’s a game. None of the players are divine, they are human. None of the teams are divine as such, or have divine qualities. This is after all a game, it’s entertainment, some people make lots of money out of it.

But for the poor boy in the village somewhere, in Lusaka, in South Africa – it’s really a game that inspires him to become better at whatever it is he is doing. I think it’s important that we continually tone it down, desacralise it if you like. Don’t make it as sacred as the media sometimes does, because it is after all a very human thing.

----------

© Tinyiko Sam Maluleke, Director for Research at UNISA in Pretoria, and current president of South African Council of Churches, was interviewed by Anna Moyle of the UK Evangelical Alliance at the Edinburgh 2010 conference (http://www.edinburgh2010.org/) on global Christianity and its mission in the post/modern world.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.