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South Africa's World Cup Legacy: Operationalizing Ubuntu

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After my last article on Ubuntu, which I wrote a couple of weeks ago on my experiences in South Africa during the month before and the first half of the World Cup, I was literally blown away at most of the responses I received. I had no idea that a small article written by an unknown blogger would make its way all around South Africa many times over. That alone was yet another humbling experience. To know that so many South Africans understood what I really meant was truly overwhelming. That article was a follow up to a rather dark article I'd written on the eve of the World Cup opening matches, regarding the amount of spending that South Africa did to prepare for the Cup, and how that related, or not, to those in dire need who might have benefited from even a fraction of that money.

So here I sit, with one very dark article, one very light article, and now I have both feet firmly planted between the two. I am not so foolish to think that the problems of South Africa will just vanish and all will be perfect after the last whistle is blown in Soccer City stadium. And while I was going to wait until the Cup was over to write this follow up article, I think after reading the amazing, inspiring and openly appreciative comments on my Ubuntu article, the time is now to discuss what is next for South Africa. After the tourists go home. After the colorful banners, billboards, and advertisements are taken down from the streets and television and everywhere else, and after the ke nakos and ayobas and waka waka fade into the distance, what happens then? Will South Africa be able to harness this joyful unity and incredible momentum and use it for the improvement of some very real and very pressing issues that face the country as a whole? Surely to say South Africa has benefited from the World Cup, there needs to be some sort of lasting, long term benefit -- a legacy if you will -- something that goes beyond an increase in tourism. But what does that legacy look like? Does anyone really know? Does anyone have any ideas?

Personally, I always get annoyed when people write a complaint or bring up an issue but do not include suggestions on how to change or improve the very thing they are complaining about. So I am creating this post in the hopes that we all can explore -- in the heat of the moment, before the post Cup hangover, and while people are still high on the World Cup -- what it is that South Africa might consider doing to build on this very real feeling of pride, of national unity, of Ubuntu, that I experienced so freely and intensely during my recent stay there.

Since youth make up a large part of the work I do with HIV/AIDS-related orphans and vulnerable children, I'll come at this from the perspective of youth empowerment programming, since youth are our global leaders of tomorrow.

There has been a lot of talk about "youth football centers." I read a recent article that FIFA was supporting the development of 20 football youth centers across the African continent. Such centers would provide youth with first rate soccer facilities, as well as precious life skills training to help them make the best decisions in life, decisions that address and value self esteem, education, and that promote HIV/AIDS prevention education. That's great. I have no issues with that other than most life skills programming needs radical overhauls that include participation from the actual youth that such programs seek to serve. But FIFA supporting 20 centers across the whole African continent? That number across such a vast space is akin to pouring water into a thimble and expecting it to water 10,000 hectares of sorghum. Ain't gonna happen. The return on investment will be so tiny that it's unlikely that significant results will be felt. If FIFA wants to truly make a meaningful contribution, that number needs to be radically expanded. Why not shoot for the moon? Why not have a goal of one center per district throughout South Africa? As they say here, "go big or go home!" And knowing that it is highly unlikely that FIFA will up the anty to expand this "youth football center" concept in a way that is felt by as many youth as possible, and given that so many South Africans are burning with national pride, and with the desire for their country to excel and succeed far beyond hosting a World Cup event, is such an idea possible? Could South Africans make this happen through sheer people power? Someone commented on my Ubuntu article:

"You've touched on something I have thought about for a long time, the balance between Ubuntu and capitalism can create a great society. I have noticed as we become more and more capitalist we become more selfish, unfortunately it is inherent in capitalism to think of yourself first then maybe down the line the greater community. However, it does not have to be like this and I just hope South Africa can maintain Ubuntu as a guiding principle, especially in our corporate sector, as we mature in this great free society that was fought for not only by our leaders but by the world over."

That comment got me thinking. Isn't it possible to make an all-district plan to have youth empowerment centers that provide soccer and life skills training to boys and girls from all walks of life? Is it possible for private sector and individual sponsors to foot the bill? Think what South Africa's legacy could be, if only people started running with ideas right now, before the euphoria of the moment dies down and everyone goes back to business as usual, pre-World Cup.

Is it possible to create twinning programs that connect youth centers to each other? I think Grassroots Soccer operates in 10 sites in South Africa, but that's only 10 sites. Could communities across South Africa team together and work this out two districts at a time? Sort of a "you help us build our center and we'll help you build yours" approach? One of the most amazing things I experienced during my recent time in South Africa was talking soccer with South Africans from all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds, and without gender bias. We all have a common language in this moment, and how rare is that? Can that be harnessed and utilized to bridge the gaps between rich and poor, between black and white, between those in need and those who have plenty? Why not create youth centers that twin a struggling community with a thriving one?

What I am envisioning is a South Africa where struggling communities have their own youth centers, but they are also twinned to another youth center that might be in a more stable economic environment -- sort of "community mentoring", if you will. And it goes both ways, for sure. Is it possible to create the space for children of different backgrounds -- the "rainbow nation" of the children of South Africa -- to create their own solutions, together, for their own tomorrow? Is it possible to create the space to bridge the gap between those with so much and those with so little. Rich or poor, every South African brings something of value to the table of life. And if true Ubuntu is the sum total of all the parts of us that make up a society, then doesn't everyone have a positive role to play? Couldn't a struggling community teach a well-to-do community how to see the joy in life's little pleasures, as I have so often seen in the faces of children joyfully running around with only a stick and an old tire rim? Or share the beauty of each group's unique cultures? And isn't it equally possible for that well-to-do community to teach that struggling community how to create thriving businesses? Is it possible ... this idea of two-way "community mentoring"? I know the "how" must come from within South Africa, not from outside, but is it possible?

Some people will probably accuse me of imposing my own "outsider" ideas on South Africa. But I have learned over the many years I've worked in development, that it is sometimes easier to see more clearly what the possibilities are when one views them with fresh "outsider's" eyes, without the baggage that comes of living in the thick of things. And even though solutions might make sense on paper, lasting solutions must come from within South Africa. I truly believe that now. Sometimes it is difficult to see the forest through the trees, as the saying goes. But I honestly believe that if all South Africans continued this forward momentum right now, during the World Cup and beyond, there would be enough people power to propel the nation forward on all cylinders, bring with them those who have so little, starting to equalize the proverbial playing field a bit more than it is now.

To me, "operationalizing Ubuntu" will be the true test of what South Africa's World Cup legacy is. I wish the country luck, and I hope that South Africans realize that there are many of us outside of their country wishing them well, cheering them on to success, just as we have done for so many of the teams we've cheered for during these World Cup games. I can see now that South Africa can accomplish anything it sets its collective mind to. I can see now that I was wrong so many trips ago, thinking that South Africa could never change, that it was a hopeless situation. I am almost embarrassed now at how little faith I had in this country. I see the potential where before I saw none. I see the hopefulness, where before I saw only despair. I know social change takes time, even generations, to actually see its results. But I hope -- truly, sincerely -- that the South Africa I now know is here to stay for a very long time. I can see now that she, as a unified country, can accomplish anything when she sets her mind to it.

I will be blowing my vuvuzela here in the USA (much to my neighbor's disdain), each time I hear of a successful achievement in South Africa. I don't mean this in a patronizing way at all, I mean it in the spirit of Ubuntu, because I see now that you are all my brothers and sisters, and your successes are my successes. I wish you well South Africa, on your journey post-World Cup.

Lastly, I know some readers won't like this article, and they will misread my words and take offense in some way or another. And that's okay with me. Just know that it was written in the spirit of Ubuntu before you hit the "reply" button....

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