from Africa in Transition

South African Candidate to Head World Soccer?

October 29, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Tokyo Sexwale, ex-freedom fighter, ex-Robben Island inmate, ex-premier, ex-cabinet minister, and multi-millionaire businessman has confirmed that he is a candidate for the presidency of the scandal-ridden FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association). Sexwale, said to have his eye on the South African presidency, helped organize South Africa’s successful bid for the 2010 World Cup and played a significant role in its success. Universally known as ‘Tokyo,’ his full name is Mosima Gabriel Sexwale (the ‘Tokyo’ moniker is based on his youthful enthusiasm for karate).

By most accounts, Sexwale has been exceptionally successful at pretty much everything to which he has turned his hand. (In 2009, he said that his wealth, based on oil and diamonds, amounted to two-hundred million dollars.) Soccer, called ‘football’ in most of the world, is overwhelmingly popular in Africa in general and South Africa in particular. Issa Hayatou, of Cameroon, is the current acting president of FIFA. Especially in the aftermath of FIFA scandals, there will be strong African sentiment for an African FIFA president. Sexwale has a successful history with FIFA, he has been a member of their fair play committee and an organizing committee board member, he is also the lead on FIFA’s Monitoring Committee for Israel and Palestine. Sexwale’s candidacy for the FIFA presidency is thoroughly credible.

South Africa is sports-mad. Because of this, South Africans are very, very good at sport. Their exceptional athletic success contributes to a common national identity and pride right across the racial rainbow. But, like other areas of national life, sport is deformed by the consequences of apartheid. Soccer is typically a ‘black’ sport. White players are rare. One of the best known is Matthew Booth, called the “White Knight” because he was at one time the only white player on the South African national squad. Similarly, rugby is a “white sport,” with relatively few black or coloured players. The 2015 South African World Cup squad had twenty-three white players and eight “of colour” in a country that is 80 percent black, 9 percent coloured, and perhaps 8 percent white. (Unlike in the United States ‘coloured’ is not a pejorative label in South Africa.) Other sports where South Africa has an international reputation include tennis (Kevin Anderson), golf (Gary Player, Louis Oosthuizen), and swimming (Chad le Clos, Cameron van der Burgh). These athletes are mostly white.

In this environment, Tokyo Sexwale has perhaps a qualification for the FIFA presidency that may not be internationally known. Through a foundation he has established, he is part of an international effort to break down racial boundaries in sport. On October 28, he said to the BBC:  “With this initiative we are giving a red card to racism in sport. Not just football. We are saying don’t throw bananas at players and do not make derogatory comments about the Williams sisters.” (The last is a reference to the celebrated American tennis players, Venus and Serena.) Other countries in addition to South Africa would benefit from de-racializing sport.

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