Keep your eye on the ball

[Originally published, in Dutch, in VPRO Gids (2010) in the run up to the World Cup]

I suffer from a deep ambivalence about the football World Cup about to start in South Africa. I am not a devoted fan of football, but I do enjoy watching the game during such international competitions – the level of athleticism and footballing skill on display is always a marvel.

I would have been happy following my favourite teams on television, but a friend has bought me tickets to four games, including the one semi-final in my home city, Cape Town. So, I am looking forward to seeing the world’s best footballers live. I worry though that the live spectacle will prove too much for my interest in the game at hand. It’s easier to follow the game on television; being at the stadium is more about being at the stadium than having a global perspective on the development of a football match, something multiple cameras and television production provides.

But yes, having four tickets, I am now part of the spectacle, and I am looking forward to walking to the stadium with my friends and among the thousands of spectators from all over the world.

My political self, on the other hand, makes it difficult to look forward to enjoying this spectacle, while not looking forward with full glee at enjoying the spectacle feels at the same time as looking a gift horse in the mouth.

As anyone with any reasonable sense of anything will realise, the publicity surrounding the World Cup is of the most ludicrous cant, on many levels. The most popular by which the World Cup in South Africa is framed is that it is a historic moment, not only for South Africa, but also for Africa. South Africa and Africa, the thinking is, will now be able to show the world that it can organise the FIFA World Cup. And this will allow Africa to take a place on the world stage.

South Africa, in other words, has not escaped its colonial habits of mind. We are still looking for the north’s approval before we can believe in ourselves. And we base this approval on the ability to organise a big spectacle.

But what about the publicity that the event provides? It may lead to investment, and to further tourism.

As I write (Monday 24 May 2010), the Mail & Guardian, a weekly newspaper in South Africa, is in the Johannesburg High Court, trying to gain access to information about the tendering processes of the Local Organising Committee (LOC), run by Danny Jordaan and responsible for putting the World Cup spectacle together. The M&G is interested in this information on the suspicion that the processes whereby local companies gained business connected to the World Cup – security, catering, power generators – may be shot through with corruption and nepotism.

The potential for corruption in LOC, a ‘private’ company, is great, as many local politicians sit on its board.

But more importantly, the court procedures reveal that state expenditure on the World Cup amounts to ZAR31-billion (about Euro3.2 billion). So, the state has spent ZAR31-billion to show the world that South Africans can organise a big spectacle. The state has spent ZAR31-billion to buy the world’s approval.

Most of this money would have been spent on infrastructure important to the smooth running of the World Cup – airports, roads running from airports to the areas in which the football stadiums are located, the football stadiums, new public transport systems, upgrading main train stations. And the state and LOC sell these infrastructure improvements as a benefit to all South Africans.

But would that ZAR31-billion (the amount remains unthinkable to me) not have been better spent on infrastructure independent of wanting to buy the world’s approval? South Africa has an enormous housing shortage and high unemployment, among many other social and economic problems. In this context, spending so much money on this particular spectacle is a slap in the face of South Africa’s poor majority.

South Africa’s political and economic elites are chauvinist in their wilful blindness to anything that falls beyond the horizon of their own gain and greed. And it is disheartening to see names one associated, as recently as 20 years ago, with the humanist political agenda of the Freedom Charter, behind the cant of the World Cup ‘message’. Even within the context of the wishful thinking of a FIFA trickle-down theory, it does not require an economist to understand that the spectacle is of benefit only to those who are already in a position to make money out of it.

Under FIFA’s directions, for instance, the informal street vendors who add so much to South Africa’s urban identity, and who create their own economic opportunities, are being moved from their original places of commerce. Homeless people are being removed from city streets and dumped in settlements far from the economic centres to which all humans migrate.

A new Cape Town stadium was built, despite there being one a few kilometres from the city centre – Athlone Stadium – which could have been upgraded for less money, and which is in the heart of Cape Town’s footballing communities. The Athlone Stadium is also along a road earmarked by the city years ago as a development corridor. A report by Karen Schoonbee and Stefaans Brümmer (Mail and Guardian, 29 April 2010) shows that Ebrahim Rasool, former premier of the Western Cape, pushed the development of the new Greenpoint Stadium under the influence of Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA.

This for me is the measure of the disappointment. We buy the world’s approval – bend over backwards for that approval – while ignoring the very people whose votes give us the power to make those decisions. It is not unique to South Africa, and certainly, wherever big sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics occur, similar problems are evident. But it is a disappointment that politicians who come from a proud South African tradition of resistance and defiance can so easily grow drunk on their own greed and the flash of the FIFA spectacle.

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