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South Africa’s own goal

As football fans worldwide turn their attention towards South Africa, Ashwin Desai and Patrick Bond look at what impact hosting the World Cup is having on the world's most unequal large country

June 16, 2010
7 min read

Visitors to the World Cup in South Africa this June will have to try hard not to see some shocking contrasts in wealth and poverty. On the one hand, the vast informal settlements in the Cape Flats and Soweto, where hundreds of thousands of poor black South Africans live in shacks without basic services. On the other, the new £380-million Green Point stadium in Cape Town and £300-million refurbished Soccer City in Johannesburg, which have received huge subsidies thanks to rulers from both the white liberal-dominated Democratic Alliance and the African National Congress.

Cape Town’s contrast is especially galling given that an upgrade of the Newlands cricket field (in a white suburb) or of Athlone’s stadium (in a black neighbourhood) would have been far cheaper. The latter was rejected, according to a representative of the international football federation Fifa, because ‘a billion television viewers don’t want to see shacks and poverty on this scale.’

South Africa’s second-largest city, Durban, boasts the most memorable new sports facility (£275 million worth, overrun from an original £160 million budget), as well as the country’s highest-profile municipal sleaze and chutzpah. This exudes from a city manager, Mike Sutcliffe, who tried – but failed – to gentrify a century-old Indian/African market for Fifa’s sake, and who regularly bans nonviolent demonstrations.

Executives of Zurich-based Fifa, especially Fifa president Sepp Blatter, blithely ignore the havoc this extravaganza is creating. To illustrate, expensive imported German marquee tents apparently require erection by a German construction company. And Fifa gets sole occupation of Durban’s Moses Mabhida stadium – including retail space and a controversial, oft-broken Sky Car up the iconic 108 meter high arch – for nearly a month, even on the 75 per cent of days soccer won’t be played, keeping the facility off-limits to visitors.

Recent national laws provide Blatter guarantees in terms of ‘ambush marketing’, logistical support, access control and protection for Fifa’s corporate partners (Adidas, Sony, Visa, Emirates, Coca Cola, Hyundai-Kia, McDonalds, local phone giants Telkom and MTN, First National Bank, Continental Tyres, Castrol, McDonalds, and Indian IT company Satyam). Only Fifa-endorsed items can be advertised within a one-kilometre radius of the stadium and along major roads. All profits go to Fifa, whose 2010 take is estimated at £2.2 billion.

Shunted off

Little will trickle down. Aside from ear-splitting vuvuzela plastic trumpets, the much-vaunted ‘African’ feel to the World Cup will be muted. Even the women who typically sell pap (corn meal) and vleis (inexpensive meat) just outside soccer stadiums will be shunted off at least a kilometre away. According to leading researcher Udesh Pillay of the South African Human Sciences Research Council, in 2005 one in three South Africans hoped to personally benefit from the World Cup, but this fell to one in five in 2009, and one in 100 today.

Danny Jordaan, CEO of the World Cup Local Organising Committee, predicted in 2005 that the games would be worth as much as £3.9 billion profit to South Africa, even after 2010-related infrastructure expenses. An estimated 400,000 people would visit the country and 160,000 jobs would be created. But current estimates have more than halved those figures. The hospitality industry is shattered after a third of rooms initially booked by Fifa’s Match agency were recently cancelled.

Benefits have shrunk but costs have soared. South Africa’s 2003 Bid Book estimate of between £100 million and £750 million rose in October 2006 to a final projected £900 million. Since then, escalations have been prolific, and now £3.6 billion is typically cited as the 2010 cost (above and beyond standard infrastructure maintenance and upgrading) – as against £1.2 billion in tourist income (an overestimate since many non-soccer tourists are staying away due to fears of overcrowding).

Some expenses, such as a new fast train from Johannesburg’s refurbished airport to the Sandton financial district, will receive partial payback from future customers, but many such projects were break-even at best without the momentary 2010 inflow. The Congress of South African Trade Unions argued in early 2009 that ‘the billions being spent on this prestige project for a rich minority of commuters should rather be spent on upgrading the existing public transport system, which is used by the poor majority.’

Mood of protest

The mood of poor and working people remains feisty, with several dozen protests each day according to police statistics, most over ‘service delivery’ shortcomings. A University of Cape Town research team reported in early 2010 that the underlying causes of discontent will continue long after the final goal. Principal among these are worsening urban poverty and rising income differentials (along both class and race lines) in what is already the most unequal major society in the world.

At least two political assassinations allegedly associated with 2010 profiteering have occurred in Mpumalanga Province’s host city, Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit). More than a thousand pupils demonstrated against Mbombela stadium when schools displaced in the construction process were not rebuilt. Mpumalanga also witnessed a recent return of apparent xenophobia, which after the World Cup may well worsen, with desperately poor South Africans turning from attacks against municipal facilities to loot retail traders from Pakistan, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Other World Cup-related protests have been held by informal traders in Durban and Cape Town; against Johannesburg officials by Soccer City neighbours in impoverished Riverlea township; against construction companies by workers; and against national officials by four towns’ activists attempting to relocate the provincial borders to shift their municipalities to a wealthier province. Just a month before the first ball was to be kicked in the tournament, strikes were threatened, raging or had just been settled over national electricity price increases, transport sector wages and municipal worker grievances.

Nor will the masses have much to cheer on the field, as the national soccer team, appropriately named Bafana Bafana (‘boys, boys’), has fallen in the global rankings from 81st to 90th this year. Global soccer apartheid means that the best African players are sucked up into European clubs with little opportunity to prepare for such events.

Trevor Phillips, former director of the South African Premier Soccer League, asks: ‘What the hell are we going to do with a 70,000-seater football stadium in Durban once the World Cup is over? Durban has two football teams, which attract crowds of only a few thousand. It would have been more sensible to have built smaller stadiums nearer the football-loving heartlands and used the surplus funds to have constructed training facilities in the townships.’

The local winners in the process are not footballers or even rugby teams that municipal officials fruitlessly hope will one day fill the white-elephant stadia. They are the large corporations and politically-connected black ‘tenderpreneurs’ (who win state tenders thanks to affirmative action, if linked to established white firms), especially in the construction sector.

This process reflects post-apartheid accumulation, according to Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of former president Thabo: ‘Black economic empowerment was created by the ultra-wealthy white business community in this country, who were involved in mining and financing and other big business, as a method of countering a programme of nationalisation. It was a matter of co-option, to co-opt the African nationalist leaders by enriching them privately.’

But with all the problems thus created, co-option is not on the cards this year. As the hype fades and protests become more insistent, the local elites’ mistake in hosting these games will be glaring. Global business and the genuine joy associated with the world’s most loved sport are mutually incompatible.

Ashwin Desai recently edited The Race to Transform: sport in post-apartheid South Africa. Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

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