What happens after the World Cup?

  • Posted on: 21 June 2011

Football is often described as the “beautiful game”. Indeed, it is. As Michael Worsnip pointed out recently (The Witness, June 12), football on the local recreation ground reduces the possibility that young people will be tempted into crime. And, of course, South Africa will host a successful Fifa World Cup next year — if it tries hard enough. All of this is obvious. But what is crucially missing from public debate are a number of awkward political, economic and social questions.

All international sports federations, including the Olympic movement, are now a significant component of globalisation. Run by overpaid bureaucrats accountable to no one, they oversee minor empires—as large as the economies of small countries—that sell sport as a commodity. It is all a far remove from the neighbourhood park. What is needed by this new form of colonialism is an acceptable level of infrastructure and a scenic backdrop, and that’s why South Africa was awarded the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Big businessmen will make a killing, politicians will have a platform on which to promote themselves and scores of already grotesquely rich footballers will have the opportunity to maximise their income.

South Africa is just a stage for this extravaganza. Its citizens are told that it will create jobs and lay the foundations of a booming tourist industry. Yes, it has helped the construction industry at a difficult time—stadia and hotels have mushroomed. But there is something obscene about Durban’s new stadium.

Named after one of the province’s most famous communists, it overlooks some of the world’s fastest-growing slums. Why should their residents buy the argument that Moses Mabhida Stadium is a better investment than houses, street lights and sanitation? In the rhetoric of the African National Congress this is a developmental state. Why are its resources not more effectively directed at improving the condition of the very poor; rather than offered on bended knee to the czars of international football?

The crucial year is not 2010, about which South Africans have been badgered endlessly — but 2011. After the 2004 Olympics, Athens was left with crumbling, redundant facilities. We shall have white elephant football stadia, to which the future viability has been given little thought. South Africans are football mad, but they generally avoid club matches in massive numbers. The signs are that rugby will be coerced into using the new stadia against its wishes. The construction of Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium was a colossal waste. Newlands could have been renovated, or a modest stadium built for the people of the Cape Flats. But a better view of Table Mountain was required by Fifa.

People like Sepp Blatter have set an agenda for South Africa to their own ends. After 2010 they will move on elsewhere, leaving a raft of unresolved problems. Is tourism the future for South Africa?

Globalisation destroyed the textile and footwear industries that provided lifetimes of work and brought stability to many communities. Now it gives back sightseers and tourism, a notoriously fragile industry. The fans who come to South Africa may well have a safe and secure trip. But this will require a new version of apartheid. South Africa is a place of violent and premature death—murder and road fatalities account for up to 30 000 fatalities, the population of a small town, every year. Visitors will need to stay away, or be protected, from the real South Africa.

Unprecedented resources will be thrown at shielding visitors—in effect altering the social geography of South Africa — and the rest of us will be more vulnerable than before. Hopefully it will work out successfully. But this will raise a further crucial question: why can we not make a similar go of the Department of Home Affairs, South African Airways, the Land Bank, Eskom and hospitals?

Or are they condoned failures, their dysfunctionality part of political infighting and a culture of plunder?

In effect, the World Cup marks the nationalisation of football: it is rapidly becoming the sports department of the ANC, an internationally sanctioned method of distracting attention from serious national shortcomings. Once the party is over, rugby will be put in its subordinate place, a not unwarranted fate: it was after all suffered by African football in the apartheid years. In the meantime, any questioning or criticism of the holy event will be labelled unpatriotic.

But this is politics, not sport; and it’s imperative to keep on probing and asking questions.

The very worst outcome would be an imposed national consensus that the World Cup is beyond criticism. And that is a very real danger.