World Cup in South Africa – behind the glitz

Bobby Wilcox reports from South Africa that the football World Cup has more to do with big business than sport.

When South Africa was selected to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup, a wave of euphoria engulfed the nation. But there were also widespread misgivings about what this would portend. These misgivings have not been misplaced. The government and the South African Football Association (SAFA) boastfully announced that this would be the best world cup ever. There was the decision “in the interests of democracy”, that the event would be hosted at ten stadiums located in all provinces so that everyone could benefit and be entertained by this wonderful spectacle. This entailed the building of five new stadiums and the renovation of five others according to FIFA’s exacting standards, despite the fact that no more than eight stadiums to accommodate eight soccer groups are necessary. The first question is thus: why build stadiums in remote areas for a maximum of four soccer matches and what will become of these stadiums when the tournament has ended? Indeed, it has been pointed out that most, if not all of these stadiums will become white elephants after the event. South Africa, it is claimed, is a soccer mad country, but the local professional league attracts on average, at most one or two thousand or even just a few hundred spectators to its premier events. As for the use of these venues for concerts featuring international artists, these occur for the most, once or twice per year in the major cities alone. So the question is rightly asked: who is going to pay for the maintenance of these glorious or inglorious venues?

The government pledged to bear the costs of the building work to be undertaken. Initial estimates were in the region of 6 billion Rand*. Inevitably, by 2008 it became evident that there would be cost overruns and the government then stated that it could only commit itself to R8.4 billion, with local city councils having to find the rest. But in the end the national government was firmly saddled with a bill of R11.7 billion. These building costs were not incurred without dispute. While contractors and government tried to keep costs down, workers, who were engaged via the dubious services of labour brokers, objected to their outright exploitation, the average wage per worker being the princely sum of R2500 per month. Strikes became a feature of this sorry exercise but at least, some concessions were won. Yet, now that the stadiums have been completed thousands of workers are again unemployed.

A second problem facing the government was how to make the country more attractive to potential visitors to the tournament. In Cape Town, for instance, the main route from the airport to the city is lined by ugly shanty towns Something had to be done and the state soon pronounced a new approach to its failing housing policy, naming it “Breaking New Ground”. What this entailed was shifting thousands of squatters out to a “temporary”, state built settlement in the remote location of Delft, with minimal infrastructure and far removed from people’s places or potential places of work. Looking much like a concentration camp, this settlement was named “Blikkiesdorp” – Tin Town, by those herded there. Their move was not without stiff resistance but the state was relentless and remorseless. It proceeded to build a “model” village on the site of the original squatter camp, promising people much improved living conditions at affordable costs. This proved to be a lie with the once again, inevitable corruption, construction cost overruns and the eventual housing rentals turning out to be two to three times higher than what was originally promised. The entire state effort has been an unmitigated disaster with ongoing battles and protests of people fighting for decent living conditions. There have been similar developments in Durban related to the World Cup and beyond that, in all centres, there is a determined effort by the powers that be to remove beggars and street people from every city for the duration of the tournament.

By now the original euphoria of the people has turned to bemusement. It has become clear that South Africa is only the junior partner hosting the tournament, while bearing its major costs. The Real boss is FIFA, which dictates transport requirements, advertising and trading related to the World Cup nationally, besides the exorbitant ticket prices and the sale of mascots, etc. There was a recent furore when it became known that the manufacture of the World Cup mascot was outsourced by an ANC-linked business, which won the contract, to a sweat shop in China. The trade union federation, COSATU expressed its outrage, arguing that unemployed South African workers should have been given the opportunity to benefit in this small way from the event. It has threatened to organise demonstrations at soccer matches if matters such as these are not properly resolved, Nothing further has been heard in this regard.

The one positive thing to emerge from this entire process has been the upgrading of the road system and the development of the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRT) in the cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, copied from and named “Rea Vaya”, after a similar system in Bolivia. The country has a notoriously feeble public transport system, which has given rise to the mafia-like minibus taxi industry. But even this will not be completed in time for the World Cup and the target is now only the minimum one or two routes per city that are considered vitally necessary.

In the mean time, besides the thousands of extra police that are to be deployed to maintain law and order, there are now serious misgivings about the control of the dozens, if not hundreds of fan parks that are being organized for those who cannot afford the exotic ticket prices. FIFA has imposed strict regulations on advertising, the sale of goods and refreshments at these venues and here, it will be backed up, albeit hesitantly, by the state. But in this arena, a world cup goal will probably be scored against the authoritarian FIFA, confronted by a soccer squad of the working class that will not be taken in by its machinations.

In all, the country faces an exciting and glorious month in June/July but serious questions remain. FIFA recently declared that it would make a small loss from the World Cup while the government boasts that the event will contribute 4.9 billion Rand to GDP this year. In a country wracked by high levels of unemployment and the lack of housing for millions, apart from the R14 billion spent on transport infrastructure, the estimated R19 billion spent on building stadiums and related costs could surely have been better utilised, with lasting benefits, rather than the lunacy of incumbent “luxury” costs that have to be met to maintain the facade of a nation that has “arrived”. While the African National Congress consciously chose the path of acting as the servant of imperialism, it is trapped in a situation where, as the ruling party, it must promote a senseless policy of bread and circuses, with very little bread at that, rather than attending to the crucial affairs of the nation.

(* R12.00 approximately equates to ?1 and R7.60 to $1US).

Robert Wilcox

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