x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

African Cup of Nations: Johannesburg a melting pot of many diaspora

The Africa Cup of Nations may not have sold out all the seats in its stadiums, but it is being vividly supported across Africa's most cosmopolitan city.

Disappointment writ on a Congolese fan. Bram Lammers for The National
Disappointment writ on a Congolese fan. Bram Lammers for The National

"Bah!" shrugged "Cribs", slapping the restaurant table with an open palm, turning his eyes away from the big screen. "Oh, well," he added, looking for a silver lining. "I suppose at least we were actually at the Afcon [the African Cup of Nations] for a change. At least our team were here."

"We", in this instance, are the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Here" is Johannesburg, and one of the suburbs where on Monday night, as for much of the 29th Nations Cup, you could easily get the impression the "we" of a visiting country were the host nation.

DR Congo had just failed, on the big screen, broadcast live from Durban, to score the second goal they needed in their final Group B match against Mali to set up a quarter-final against South Africa.

"Cribs", at least, would be spared the divided loyalties that encounter might have stirred in him.

The son of Congolese parents, he grew up in South Africa, and holds dual citizenship, one of many Johannesburgers with a Pan-African background.

In nearby Yeoville, a district which nestles at the top edge of a valley next to the high-rise, high-density apartment towers of Hillbrow, the exit of Congo's Leopards from the tournament meant heart-break with little compensation for hundreds of residents.

Yes, the Congo team had reversed a seven-year slump by at least qualifying for the Nations Cup. But they had also provided, and then dashed, the hopes, at home and across the massive Congolese diaspora, that a squad with some standout talents might go far.

The tournament will miss DR Congo because their matches have animated so many parts of urban South Africa.

Yeoville rocked whenever Congo played, as it has on match days featuring Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia. The area is a hub of African immigration, though many of its tenants, unlike "Cribs", are still in search of permissions to work and stay long term in the melting-pot metropolis whose population swells each month with new arrivals.

In some ways, South Africa should be the ideal host of an Nations Cup. Africans of all sorts live there.

Every tournament evening invites different flag-wavers out of their homes to claim their space, proudly, raucously for 90 minutes or so.

But many also do so having lived through an immigrant experience barbed with hostility, and have known times when discretion about where you come from is prudent.

Since the opening weekend of the tournament Yeovillers have been anything but shy, keen to place early markers on the prime television-viewing sites available.

The Congolese had for three nights commandeered some prime real estate, the first floor of a two-storey building on Rockey Street, Yeoville's main thoroughfare. The venue is large, spread over a space of more than 200 square metres with booths around its perimeter and with 20-odd television screens suspended from the ceilings.

On Afcon nights, it has transformed into a little Lubumbashi or Lagos. Almost nobody comes there to sit, but rather to bounce up and down, chanting familiar songs with compatriots, craning their necks up at the televisions.

If you follow Rockey Street as it stretches down into the valley, and turn east, you soon come to one of the city's Ethiopian enclaves. Behind a carefully painted mural depicting a pastoral savannah village and beneath the word "Abyssinia" is a restaurant, an obligatory phone and internet centre, posters recommending how to transfer money home, and a small cinema, carved out of what was once a boutique shop space in a mall.

The movie auditorium, normally used for the latest Amharic-language films, was given over last night to the big-screen showing of Ethiopia's match against Nigeria, part of the potential cliffhanger that was Group C's shakedown for quarter-final places.

The mall has been the site of some intense joshing lately. Some five yards from "Abyssinia", in a hairdressing salon, Zambian flags hang conspicuously. Zambia, the defending champions, last night chased one of the top two spots in the same group.

Between two and four million - depending on whether you veer to the official statistics or the estimates of NGOs - foreign nationals from elsewhere in Africa live in South Africa.

Some of their journeys have been arduous, sometimes overland from as far as way as the troubled Horn of Africa or war-torn north-eastern DR Congo, and fearful.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that South Africa received more asylum applications than any other country in the world in 2011, well over 100,000.

Other immigrants head towards Johannesburg for the same reasons European settlers did in the late 19th century, to seek fortunes in "Egoli", the city of gold, or further south for opportunities in the coastal cities. What some then encounter, however, is resentment, jealousy and in the worse cases, violence.

Horrific xenophobic attacks, focused on townships outside major cities, caused the deaths of more than 60 peoples in 2008 and led, reports UNHCR, "many refugees to live in more expensive inner-city areas". And the last time a major football event came to the country, fear of anti-immigrant violence simmered.

The 2010 World Cup would be an applauded, efficient and welcoming experience for most visitors to South Africa, but for some foreign residents, it felt nervous.

Johannesburg's main rail and bus station on the morning of the World Cup final was unusually full of travellers seeking rides towards borders, alarmed by an active, persistent rumour that once the tournament was over, anti-immigrant attacks were imminent.

A survey by the Cape Town-based Scalabrini Centre that provides welfare to refugees found 74 per cent of immigrants had been threatened with a post-World Cup wave of violence against foreigners. The rumours turned out to be rumours, the threats largely empty. Among the prevailing memories of a World Cup would instead be the number of South Africans, with their own national team eliminated early, who allied themselves enthusiastically with Ghana as the Black Stars progressed to within a penalty kick of the semi-final.

Instead of Bafana Bafana, as the South Africa team are nicknamed, they adopted, and rechristened the continent's pacesetters, "Ba-Ghana, Ba-Ghana".

"So far from what I have seen at this Afcon," said Miranda Madikane, of the Scalabrini Centre, "is that it has been a lot about celebration of all our Africanness, which is a obviously good thing, and at the moment cultural intolerance is not a big topic."

In Rustenburg last Saturday, the orange-clad Ivory Coast fans, and the clutch of travelling Togo supporters could be seen swaying to the surround-sound chorus of Shosholoza, the folk song South Africans devote to their teams.

Although matches involving visiting teams have tended not to be sold out, South Africa's resident Ethiopians have made a big noise, in big numbers, in Nelspruit, site of their opening two matches.

Meanwhile, seats and bunks on the Shosholoza Meyl, as the train that criss-crosses the country is called, are sold out for Friday's long overnight Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth run.

The Black Stars play their quarter-final, against Cape Verde, at Port Elizabeth's Nelson Mandela Stadium on Saturday.

Ghanaians from places like Yeoville will be there, as well as some South Africans with an enduring soft spot for Ba-Ghana Ba-Ghana.

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