ON MY first visit to Ghana more than 15 years ago, I was enchanted by the carved wooden people found all over Accra’s markets. There were roomfuls of brightly painted soldiers, white colonials, bureaucrats, waiters, nurses and myriad other icons of human beings produced by west African craftsmen.
Over the years, these figurines appeared in SA’s markets, with new models including golfers, jockeys and, yes, soccer players. So it was a surprise to read that the wooden souvenir soccer players licensed by Fifa for sale in SA’s shopping malls over the World Cup tournament had been made to order in Indonesia, with just their team outfits being painted on in SA.
A spokesman for the South African company that produced them was quoted as saying they battled to find artisans in Africa with the capacity to make the several thousand men.
This is strange, given the longstanding expertise in west Africa. But it is disappointing is that not one business in that region — where the majority of African teams at the cup hail from — thought to undertake such a project well in advance of the tournament. Unlike flags or soccer jerseys, wooden carvings are particularly African souvenirs and it is irksome that these official mementos had to be produced outside the continent.
Indeed, there are many other World Cup-specific African artefacts that could have been produced locally for the tournament. How about souvenir eagles from Nigeria, elephants from Côte d’Ivoire and lions from Cameroon — to reflect the teams’ nicknames?
For all the talk of this being an African tournament, most countries on the continent have done little to leverage benefits for themselves. Beyond the matches, it has been almost entirely a South African event. The continent’s biggest exposure in this tourist-fest has been through its non-tournament- specific arts and crafts, which foreigners have been snapping up.
And even then, unless visitors ask about the items, they will not know their origin as there has been no attempt by African communities in SA or traders from other countries to brand their nations through their stalls or their merchandise.
Unless I have missed something, Africa north of the Limpopo has missed the branding opportunity of the decade. By way of contrast, Portugal, a country that needs no introduction, is running a well-marketed month-long festival of shows and events in Johannesburg during the Cup.
Even if tourist numbers are lower than expected, there are still many thousands of foreigners in SA. For many, it is their first visit to Africa and they are open to new sights, experiences and information.
Despite the warm and fuzzy view of an African union of states by Africans, countries still vie on a national basis for business, tourists and recognition. This nationalism is hardly on show outside the stadiums.
Branding a country need not involve the tortuous process of getting Fifa accreditation. A Nigerian or Ivorian display of crafts, music, food, pictures and information at markets in SA’s cities, which have been packed with tourists over the past few weeks, would go a long way towards highlighting their countries.
Classy billboards in Sandton highlighting Nigeria as an investment opportunity or Ghana as a tourist destination would link these states to the success of the tournament and highlight their competitive edge. And this effort needs not be limited to participating states.
Southern African countries have made some effort with a small exhibition of their attractions in Johannesburg, but this leaves a large number of countries, notably in west Africa, out of the loop. There have been some glimpses of the rest of Africa via art exhibitions and a few musicians performing in world cup concerts.
The notion of an African World Cup is not just about attracting a few tourists across the border between games — it is about an opportunity to brand countries in SA while the world is watching, an opportunity that has been missed by governments, business and communities across the continent.
As a result, it is likely that as African teams pack up and go home, they will be forgotten in the minds of the thousands of foreign fans still enjoying Brand SA.