What are an archbishop in purple trainers, a lady in smart heels and two distinguished African statesmen in loafers doing kicking a football in Johannesburg? They are more used to kicking around ideas to change the world, including their own. But there is no denying the magic of football and the World Cup fever is infectious.
“Even if people say, ‘maybe you could have used this money for building houses’, human beings do not live on bread alone,” insists Archbishop Desmond Tutu. With his trademark ebullience, he declares: “You need things that inspire you.” Tutu, international campaigner Graca Machel (Mandela’s wife), former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and former UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, all belong to Nelson Mandela’s group of 10 world leaders, no longer in power, who still use their influence on the world stage.
“This World Cup will strengthen our oneness and self-esteem,” enthuses Machel. “We need this kind of thing, which tells us how good we are, and how good we can be.” Even Annan, a Ghanaian more accustomed to trying to change the world through aid and diplomacy, spoke of how “one wonderful day in our lives is much better than years of misery. It gives us hope that it is possible to live that kind of experience and build on it.” And it is not just South Africa. “I come from the uppermost north of the continent,” says Algerian Lakhdar Brahimi. “People there feel extremely strongly about these games and think these are their games.”
It is not just this first World Cup on the African continent that gives this year an aura of history. This year, 17 African nations mark 50 years since independence. It has been a mixed performance. “When I see our collective performance, I am very self-critical,” reflects Brahimi who was a part of the violent struggle that won Algeria its independence from France.
Looking at his three fellow Africans, he says: “You and I, who were around in those days can say, ‘It is not too bad, we have made some progress,’ but the young man born 20 years ago does not know about that... and says my life is no bloody good.’” Annan adds a more hopeful note: “If you look around the continent and see the generational change taking place, you are going to see fewer and fewer Presidents who are going to stay around for 30 to 40 years. They are not kings.” But these leaders express frustration, if not flashes of anger, when they talk about what they see as a double standard when it comes to their continent.
Graca Machel wags an accusing finger: “The problems with the eyes of the rest of the world is successful stories do not count as progress. Two or three wrong stories define 53.” It provokes a history lesson from Tutu. Pointing to low points across centuries of western history, including the Holocaust and slavery, the Arch, as he is widely known, says, “The history of the west actually gives us hope — if you came out of the mess and become as you have.”
He insists on the need for “people to evolve.” But like all the rest, he also points out: “We are some of the sharpest critics of our own people, we tell them: ‘If you are a leader you must be accountable to the people.’” The Elders’ work has taken them to a number of African countries, including Sudan and Zimbabwe. True Africans, they may be, but this is a competitive sport.
“Come on Graca,” urges the Archbishop as he strikes the ball with his bright purple boots and sends her running in her elegant attire across a makeshift football pitch. There is a roar of laughter as Annan deftly kicks the ball back. Tutu breaks into a spirited cheer for “Bafana Bafana!” — South Africa’s national team. “We may surprise ourselves.” That evokes a sympathetic reply from Annan: “It is good to dream…”
Lyse Doucet, is a presenter for BBC World News and presented African Game Plan as part of its World Cup coverage. This article first appeared on bbc.com/news.