Ghana's success builds hope for peace after soccer

Johannesburg — The Globe and Mail

Ghana Black Stars fans cheer after their team beat the U.S. 2-1 on June 26 at the World Cup in South Africa. (SIA KAMBOU/Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)

With their beloved Bafana Bafana now on the sidelines, South Africans are shifting their devotion to the last surviving African team in the World Cup - a team they're calling "BaGhana BaGhana."

They're officially called the Black Stars of Ghana, and a victory on Friday night would make history. They would become the first African team ever to reach the World Cup semi-finals, a triumph that would trigger a wild celebration across the continent.

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Yet even as pan-African unity is stirred into life, there is a deeper unspoken question: Can the spirit of soccer overcome the smouldering tensions that have fuelled brutal attacks on African migrants for years in South Africa?

It's not an idle question. There are mounting fears that those tensions could erupt into another wave of attacks on African migrants as soon as the World Cup is over. The South African government and the Nelson Mandela Foundation are among those that have issued strong warnings against xenophobic violence this week.

The Mandela Foundation said it is "concerned about rumours surfacing that there are negative sentiments arising towards non-nationals in South Africa."

The Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, put it more bluntly. "Government will not tolerate any violence for any reason against foreign nationals resident in South Africa," he said in a statement on Thursday. "Government is closely monitoring these xenophobic threats by faceless criminals whose desire is to create anarchy."

South Africa has traditionally held itself aloof from the rest of Africa, seeing itself as richer and more developed. That feeling of aloofness has sometimes escalated into hostility and violence toward the millions of African refugees and migrants who journey to South Africa in search of jobs and business opportunities. That's why the pan-African mood at the World Cup is seen as a historic opportunity to bridge the gulf and ease the tensions.

Two years ago, a horrific wave of attacks on foreigners in South Africa left 62 people dead and 670 injured, forcing more than 100,000 people to flee their homes. Since then, the violence has been reduced, but it has never really stopped. Dozens of African migrants, from Somali shopkeepers to Zimbabwean fruit pickers, have been injured or killed in the past two years by assailants who deliberately targeted foreigners. And many migrants say they have heard South Africans threatening to launch more attacks after the World Cup, when the spotlight has shifted away.

Earlier this week, South African police and soldiers launched an anti-crime operation in the township of Du Noon, on the edge of Cape Town, which had been a centre of xenophobic violence in 2008. The show of force was reportedly intended to prevent any further outbreaks of anti-foreigner violence after the World Cup.

With all of those threats bubbling in the background, Ghana's Black Stars are more than just an ordinary sports team - they are freighted with a heavy political burden. If they can defeat Uruguay on Friday night to reach the semi-finals, they could defuse some of the anti-foreigner hostilities.

The Mandela Foundation says it is hoping that the growing popularity of Ghana's soccer team could help to prevent violent attacks on African migrants. "We have seen South Africans unite around a common support for African teams during the World Cup," the foundation said this week in a public plea for the rights of foreigners. "We hope that this will lead to greater appreciation by South Africans of our place on this continent and that we will show greater solidarity with non-nationals. We have a common humanity to share."

The ruling political party, the African National Congress, is jumping on the Ghana bandwagon, hoping that the spirit of African solidarity will continue after the World Cup. At a meeting yesterday, ANC leaders wore Ghana scarves and shirts as they presented a plaque to Ghana's soccer association, calling on "Mother Africa" and "the gods of Africa" to boost the Black Stars to victory.

"We'd like to call on the whole continent to support the Black Stars of Ghana," said ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbethe. "There's an emerging view that they should be known as the Black Stars of Africa. We agree with that."

Kwesi Nyantakyi, president of the Ghana Football Association, said the team's success could "heal and unite" the African continent.

"Even in troubled places like Somalia, people are cheering for us," he told the ANC meeting. "That's the power of football. People in Darfur and Somalia who should be fighting are glued to their televisions. For 90 minutes, there is no war."

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