South Africa: Will World Cup party be worth it?

Durban’s new Moses Mabhida Stadium, a stark reminder that staggering wealth and poverty already stand side by side in South Af

On June 11, South Africans will start partying like no time since liberation in April 1994. It is a huge honour for our young democracy to host the most important sporting spectacle short of the Olympics.

The ordinary people who have worked hard in preparation deserve gratitude and support — especially the construction workers, cleaners, municipal staff, health-care givers and volunteers who will not receive due recognition.

But balancing psychological benefits against vast socioeconomic and political costs is vital.

US radical sportswriter Dave Zirin called Durban’s new Moses Mabhida Stadium the most breathtaking he’d ever seen, but provided a reality check: “This is a country where staggering wealth and poverty already stand side by side.

“The World Cup, far from helping this situation, is just putting a magnifying glass on every blemish of this post-apartheid nation.”

In Durban, our worst face is usually to be found at City Hall, where time and again, municipal manager Michael Sutcliffe bans community protests against his anti-poor policies.

As eNews journalist Morgan Collins learned on his way to jail while trying to cover a nurses’ strike in April, cops stamping on constitutional rights has become a bad habit here.

‘Democracy-free zone’

Officials from the national security apparatus told parliament they will go further in democracy-removal, throwing a 10-kilometre “cordon” around Mabhida Stadium, named (without irony) after a grand old Communist Party leader.

During June-July, Durban activists are meant to be shocked and awed by “air sweeps by fighter jets, joint border patrols with neighbouring countries, police escorts for cruise ships and teams of security guards with ‘diplomat’ training”.

The aim is to “prevent domestic extremism, strike action and service delivery protests”.

On May 10, trade union allies of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union had perfectly valid reasons to begin the biggest strike in South African history, as they described it, as do regular service-delivery demonstrators who are victimised by corrupt housing contractors, or the victims of shack fires caused by denial of electricity.

To equate non-violent protest with “extremism” is old apartheid paranoia at its worst.

Much of the blame for Durban’s commercialised democracy-free World Cup zone goes to the International Federation of Football Association (FIFA).

Just a few dozen metres away from where poor people are now denied their source of fish and income, FIFA’s expensive imported marquee tents apparently require erection by a German construction company.

Little will trickle down. Aside from extremely loud plastic trumpets, the much-vaunted “African” feel to the World Cup will be muted. Women who typically sell “pap” (cornmeal) and vleis (meat) just outside stadiums will be shunted off at least a kilometre away.

Analyst Udesh Pillay of the Human Sciences Research Council said, in 2005 one in three South Africans hoped to personally benefit from the World Cup, but this has fallen to one in 100 today.

FIFA gets sole occupation of Mabhida Stadium. Even on the 75% of days that soccer won’t be played, the facility will be off-limits to visitors. FIFA’s anticipated profit from these games: more than US$3 billion.

FIFA sponsorship is hazardous to this economy. Teenage workers at Shanghai Fashion Plastic Products and Gifts have been paid just $3 a day to manufacture Zakumi mascot dolls, which could easily have been produced in our region’s idle factories.

The local World Cup organising chief, Danny Jordaan, predicted in 2005 that 400,000 people would visit. In reality, there will be half as many, and the hospitality industry’s market is glutted after a third of rooms booked by FIFA’s Match agency were cancelled.

Economic farce, politcal tragedy

Costs are soaring. South Africa’s 2003 bid estimate of between $150 million and $1.2 billion expenditure rose to $5 billion today.

South Africa — with our untenable $80 billion foreign debt — may end up getting the same treatment by international institutions as Greece, whose high debt was partially fuelled by its hosting of the 2004 Olympics.

From economic farce we slide into political tragedy. There have been at least two assassinations (potentially more) of honest politicians who criticised World Cup contracts.

More than 1000 pupils demonstrated against the newly built Mbombela Stadium, near Nelsruit, when schools displaced in the construction process were not rebuilt. Other World Cup-related protests by informal traders have occurred against Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town municipal officials by informal traders.

There have been protests against Johannesburg officials by Soccer City stadium neighbours in the impoverished Riverlea township and by workers against construction companies.

In Durban, Sutcliffe has presided over a string of expensive management disasters: failed bus privatisation due to cronyism; his foiled attempt to replace a century-old Indian market with a shopping mall; ceaseless public subsidies for elite-oriented megaprojects; a delusional new trade port nowhere near Africa’s largest harbour; disastrous water/sewerage breakdowns; and an economic development strategy reliant upon sports tourism in a coming era constrained by climate change and fast-rising air travel taxes, to mention just a few foibles.

Zirin said: “To see a country already dotted with perfectly usable stadiums spend approximately $3 billion on new facilities is to notice a squandering of resources that is unconscionable.”

The contradictions are evident when comparing Mabhida Stadium — built next to a fine rugby ground that could have been cheaply upgraded — to the horrendous shacks where hundreds of thousands live within more than a hundred informal settlements across Durban.

In April, Cato Crest township residents survived their fourth fire this year, with 200 shacks destroyed.

Once again, a paraffin (kerosene) stove was to blame, because denial of affordable electricity to poor people is long-standing city policy.

Yet self-congratulatory officials don’t seem to give a damn. The chair of the municipal housing committee, Nigel Gumede, recently joined Sutcliffe to reject findings of the National Home Builders’ Registration Council.

Its report on a city sub-contractor, Zikhulise Cleaning, Maintenance and Transport, criticised a $40 million deal to build 18,000 tiny houses, which began in 2006.

The report found three quarters were built below municipal building standards and need repairs. Sewerage in the project represented a pollution and health risk.

Without stormwater drainage, there is “a high possibility of mudslides”.

Defenidng Zikhulise, Sutcliffe said: “The reports that these houses were built to sub-standard levels are absolute nonsense and part of media frenzy.”

Across KwaZulu-Natal province, 49 housing projects like Zikhulise’s contain more than 40,000 defective houses, a government forensic investigation found.

There is also a new municipal policy in which a private debt collection company will enforce $9 million in arrears from 600 council flats. A municipal report found council debt collectors have already generated “massive homelessness”, notwithstanding tenants’ attempts to “try their best to pay their levies”.

Global soccer apartheid

The core World Cup welcoming committee in Durban are venal elites, quite capable of playing the race card (a Sutcliffe speciality, although he is white), enriching themselves and talking left so as to walk right.

Unless something is done, the world-scale embarrassments will pile up faster than goals against the national soccer team Bafana Bafana, which have fallen in the global rankings to 90th (they are in the World Cup only because they are the host team).

No wonder: global soccer apartheid means that the best African players are sucked up by European clubs.

Trevor Phillips, former director of the South African Premier Soccer League, asked: “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 this World Cup will be large corporations and politically connected black “tenderpreneurs”.

The “tenderpreneurship” strategy is profoundly corrupt, said Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of former South African president Thabo. “It was a matter of co-option, to co-opt the African nationalist leaders by enriching them privately.”

But co-option of the politicised grassroots is not easy. Once the soccer hype fades and protests become more insistent, local elites will realise their mistake in hosting these games in such a wasteful, arrogant manner.

They will learn what we already know: large-scale profiteering by business and genuine joy associated with the world’s most loved sport are mutually incompatible.

[Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, which offers a register of social protests covered in the national media and a “World Cup Watch” update. A longer version can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]