Does Angola attack really endanger the World Cup or just Africa’s image?
The bloody attack on Togo’s team bus in Angola is a huge tragedy for African football and like it or not, has cast a shadow over the World Cup in South Africa in five months time — the biggest sports event ever staged on the continent.
It is highly debatable whether the attack, which killed two members of the Togolese delegation as they arrived for the African Nations Cup and forced the squad’s evacuation on Sunday, really increases the risk to teams and spectators in South Africa.
Without a doubt, however, it has struck a blow against Africa’s concerted efforts to improve its image and reverse decades of gloomy stereotypes painting the entire continent as racked by conflict, disease and despair. Both the Nations Cup, held in a country which only emerged from a 27-year civil war in 2002, and the World Cup were intended to help the process of rehabilitating the continent’s image.
South African organisers reacted with undisguised irritation to immediate suggestions that the Angolan attack should raise concerns over the globe’s most watched event. Over the weekend, Hull City Manager Phil Brown was quoted as saying the attack threw a question mark over the World Cup and other Premier League coaches were said to have called for their expensive African players to be called back from Angola. In contrast, Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger said the players should stay, suggesting other managers were motivated more by club self interest than a genuine security concern.
Chief World Cup organiser Danny Jordaan described suggestions that the Angolan attack had implications for the global event as “nonsensical”, tartly pointing out that South Africa does not even have a border with Angola. The attack in the enclave of Cabinda took place thousands of kilometres from South Africa, and the reaction in some European countries reinforces a tendency which regularly causes anger and frustration on a continent where many countries are enjoying stability and attracting unprecedented investment. A while back some Kenyan friends of mine established a Facebook group called “Africa is not one country” in reaction to the common failure of Europeans and Americans to distinguish between vastly different African nations with traditions, geographical location and cultures as diverse or more diverse than those in Europe.
Jordaan’s angry reaction to attempts to taint the World Cup with the Angolan attack clearly revealed this irritation and perhaps also anxiety that such suggestions might stick. “To say what happened in Angola impacts on the World Cup in South Africa is the same as suggesting that when a bomb goes off in Spain, it threatens London’s ability to host the next Olympics,” he said.
Security analysts seem divided over whether the Angolan attack means the World Cup faces an increased risk. Most see the parallels as stretched to say the least–South Africa is a country with a multitude of social problems but at peace since the end of apartheid 15 years ago, with no rebel movements and no record of recent terrorist attacks. Africa’s richest economy, it enjoys impeccable credentials in the Third World and among radical movements because of its unaligned foreign policy and criticism, for example, of the Iraq war. It also has a much more highly developed security apparatus and crime fighting resources than Angola, even if the police are regularly accused of corruption. It boasts of organising at least 150 international events, including rugby and cricket world cups, without problems.
Until the Angolan attack, concern about World Cup security had focused primarily on the threat from criminal gangs, given that South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, including around 50 murders a day. But South African police say they have also trained intensively in techniques to fight both terrorism and football hooligans and are ready for any threat.
However, police spokesman Vish Naidoo has acknowledged that the presence of high profile teams from known terrorist targets, like England and the United States, does present a risk, while analysts say the greatest danger of the Angolan attack is that it will encourage copycat actions from groups who have seen the dramatic impact of a comparatively small and easily-organised action against a team during a high-profile tournament. While teams and officials will be heavily guarded, foreign fans will be more vulnerable.
However well-prepared they think they are, South African authorities would do well to reinforce their preparations and assess whether new threats now exist. Many critics have said Angola’s biggest mistake was complacency over the situation in Cabinda and a politically-motivated decision to stage Nations Cup matches in the only part of the country where a real threat still existed.
Even if South Africa’s preparations are impeccable, the biggest casualty beyond the Togolese victims of the attack will be Africa’s image among the majority of uninformed people in West who too often tar one country with the troubles of another and whose prejudices have been sadly reinforced by events in a place many had never heard of before last Friday.