By JENERALI ULIMWENGU
The R-word has raised its ugly head yet again in the world of football.
We have been embroiled in the aftermath of the French triumph in Russia 2018 and the identities of those young men who took the trophy to the Elysee Palace. Who were they, where did they come from, and are they really French?
Well, for one thing, we can say with certainty that they carried French papers, for otherwise they would not have been let into Russia in the first place. But does the fact of having the official papers make them French when we know that they will never be able to sing, Nos ancetres les Gaulois (our ancestors the Gauls ), as French kids were taught to chant back in the day.
With names like Kante, Sidibe, Umtiti, Matuidi, Dembele, Mbappe and Fekir, and complexions and facial features like the people we encounter here day to day, it is hardly surprising that people will question these young people’s claim to Frenchness.
But they are French, very French, and even the dyed-in-the-wool racists in France have to admit that these dark-skinned kickers of balls have insinuated themselves smack in the middle of what sporting France sees itself as.
And yet, despite that, racist attitudes die hard. I remember that in the days when Yannick Noah played tennis for France in the 1980s, the newspapers would hail the great “French” hero of Roland Garros when he won, but mourn the defeat of the “Franco-Cameroonian” when he lost.
That is exactly what Mesut Ozil, the subtle technician, said a few days ago as he announced his resignation from the German national soccer team. “I am a German when I win and an immigrant when I lose.”
It is a feeling that most of these lads are likely to harbour silently.
It speaks to a central fact in life, whether the life of a racial group, an ethnic community or nation: you are valued for what you can do, your character, your contribution, the added value of you.
People do not like to identify with failure, because it compounds their own miseries. Success, on the other hand, enhances their sense of self-worth, even when they have had no part in its attainment.
Which makes me think that Africans have the ability to combat racism across the world by simply making sense.
It is possible to look at individuals who have distinguished themselves in whatever they do and forget they are this or that colour, or is it?
The greatest footballer of all time, Edison Arantes do Nascimento, known to you and me as Pele, got his nickname from his skin colour, a name he did not like when he was growing up in Minas Gerais.
Somebody later improvised by stating, without authority, that the name meant “Black Pearl,” which is fine with me. It should not really mean too much what colour of skin you were born with, because that alone does not determine what you can or cannot do. Unless, of course, socially and politically constructed meanings are deployed to disenfranchise certain groups.
Now, these constructed meanings cannot be understood if they are deployed by our own people against ourselves. The realities of the African continent suggest that we are our own worst enemies in this context.
Look at the thousands of young people risking their lives crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean, and tell me, just what are they running from?
They are fleeing countries that are not only not working, but countries that have simply refused to work after more than a half century of so-called Independence. That perilous flight is an indictment of our rulers who have failed the youth by stealing from them and refusing them the opportunity to make something out of their lives, and who see flight to Europe as their only salvation, however life-threatening.
Those who manage to get into Europe will, of course, not all become famous footballers; most will do undignified manual jobs, and some may end up being swallowed by the shadowy world of criminality, further enhancing the perceptions of a whole continent as being irredeemably godforsaken.
If France can embrace the Mbappes of this world, the whole world will embrace us if we show that we can be productive and contribute to the wellbeing of ourselves and the world instead of being perennial beggars though we have more than abundant resources.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org