AFCON is here. Every two years, the continental cup comes to our screens, bringing with it heightened emotion, feverish displays of patriotic pride and football banter on social media. Hashtags, trending topics and memes fill timelines as hardcore football fans and casual watchers alike come together to dedicate 90-plus minutes of their lives to support their team. It can be a beautiful thing to watch people come together and celebrate a sport that is revered across Africa, especially when people come together to support their neighbours when their own teams are not on the field. However, that feel-good Pan-African camaraderie can give way to mean-spirited competition, and lighthearted interactions online can turn ugly between users from competing countries.
When rivalry becomes mean-spirited
It started innocently enough. With Zimbabwe’s Mighty Warriors facing off against Uganda in their Group A match, it was natural to see Zimbabwean and Ugandan fans take to Twitter and support their national teams. If you are not able to go to Egypt and wave your country’s flag at the match, the next best thing is to perform your patriotism on a visible and accessible platform. #UGAZIM started doing the rounds as its users sparred with each other on which team was better than the other and why. What began as friendly competition soon devolved into cheap shots about which country was better. An aerial shot of Harare’s glass-paned high-rise buildings was juxtaposed with a street level photo of Kampala. The implication was clear: Harare is modern and fancy; the ‘better’ city, while Kampala is poor, dirty and overcrowded. It is disappointing to see what is meant to be a celebration of continental sportsmanship deteriorate into such a mean-spirited trading of insults.
This is not the first time this has happened. Every now and then, “rivalries” between countries flare up and play out on Twitter. How and why they start is often a mystery, but it never ends well. It is no secret that as a continent we are not one big happy family. The Pan-African dream of solidarity and unity does not always play out in reality. There are tensions and hostilities, superiority and inferiority complexes that play out in political speeches and Afrophobic attacks. This is often the result of a herd mentality, which sees people “stick to their own”. The above-mentioned example of comments made by public officials and private citizens on public platforms is just one instance of many such remarks and jokes made at the expense of other African countries.
What is worse is that such remarks – often unprovoked – often fall back on stereotypes of Africans, poverty and development. The belief that your country is “better” than another because it looks more developed not only encourages a divisive and condescending mentality but it also flies in the face of a shared past of black solidarity in the face of injustice.
Is this an overreaction? I can already imagine some people reading this, shaking their heads and saying it’s not that deep. I would disagree. How we speak to each other and how we speak about each other as Africans is important. We can make fun of each other in a lighthearted and inoffensive way. We can laugh at ourselves without making the experiences and lives of other Africans the punchline of a joke in order to make ourselves feel better. Most importantly, we can support our national teams and display our pride in them without wounding our competitors. As AFCON continues and moves from the group stages to the quarter finals, it is important to remember what this tournament is really about. It is a time where a continent, with all its problems and divisions, can come together and cheer each other on. So let’s leave out the name-calling and negativity, sit back and enjoy the tournament with the same sportsmanship and class exhibited by the national players on the field.