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World Cups and White Elephants

July 28, 2010

With the end of a World Cup comes the inevitable post-mortems by some qualified, and some unqualified, to talk of these things. Around the world people will bemoan and berate, complain and celebrate the tactics of their team, substitutions that were or should have been, team selection and goal line technology. These discussions have 4 years to run until the next World Cup in Brazil. Inevitably there will be winners and losers, reputations enhanced and decreased by a month of football at the zenith of professional footballer’s aspirations. There will be those who will never pull on their country’s jersey again, while there will be others who find their shirts fit a little more securely after a successful tournament (I’m not implying that people get fatter but that there place in the team is more secure).

However, perhaps the biggest talking point of this World Cup is about winners and losers, yet it takes place off the football pitch, and indeed away from football altogether. Much is spoken of the World Cup being a force for the good in a country like South Africa, but its legacy will remain to be seen. What we can quantify is costs but the rest is merely speculation. We know for example that the World Cup cost South Africa £3.3bn to host though any attempt to account for potential benefits from hosting will often fall into the trap of attempting to place a financial figure on benefits that deserve to be left unquantified. We know that for a month the eyes of the world were focused on South Africa and for the most part South Africa shone, but now the fickle nature of news coverage means that South Africa will cease to hit headlines in the West aside from more shocking violent crime statistics , dire warnings of increasing poverty , and the country’s laughable (if it wasn’t so disgusting) handling of the HIV/AIDS crisis . With the World’s eye inevitably cast towards the tragedy du jour and the celebrity gossip that qualifies as ‘news’ in the watered down age that is characterising the 21st century, South Africa has to maintain the positives that came out of World Cup while at the same time avoiding the numerous pitfalls that besiege the continent and the very unique situation that South Africa finds itself in the World’s standings.

What was highly noticeable at this World Cup was how easy it was for commentators and pundits to say how this was a victory for Africa, and how South Africa were a beacon for hope within the entire continent. This needs to be placed firmly in perspective. On no other continent would this lazy reporting be allowed. The 2006 World Cup in Germany had no reflection on England’s capacity to host a World Cup, and the handling of tourists at France 98 was not telling of Belgium’s ability to do the same. No other country in sub-Saharan Africa could afford, nor attempt, to host a World Cup however, and here perhaps they felt some form of pan-Africanism that Kwame Nkrumah would have been proud of. However, South Africa is neither representative of any other country on the continent, nor a continental rallying point, where all other countries place their faith. Pan-African organisations such as the African Union (AU) are supplemented, and at times superseded by regional organisations such as ECOWAS, the SADC and respective organisations for other geographical locations. Though many of these organisations are supposed to complement the work of the AU, many countries find these regional arrangements provide greater returns than the one size fits all attempts made by the AU which is dominated by South Africa. South Africa is equally the continent’s voice in the UN, and during its tenure on the Security Council earned wide spread condemnation for its stance on various human rights issues and its support for brutal regimes. Indeed when the most effusive praise you can receive is from the Sudanese after attempting to block humanitarian aid into Darfur is a sobering thought . It is clear why South Africa can become shorthand for all of Africa but this is not the case.

South Africa is clearly in a position elevated from most of sub-Saharan Africa in terms of global standing, but this is not to say that the issues that affect Namibia and Benin for example aren’t replicated in South Africa. Poverty, education, unemployment, AIDS, inequality, crime and corruption all exist to a shocking extent in a country that is regarded by many as existing on an equal footing with second-tier economies in Europe. What must be remembered is that hosting a good World Cup is not a short cut to solving these problems, and in fact could highly exacerbate many existing promises.

When economists and political scientists talk of ‘White Elephants’ in the future, one hopes that their go to example will not be the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. A ‘White Elephant’ is an object whose costs to create and maintain far exceed any potential value they have other than being a status symbol. In this case it is the dedication of funds towards the building of football stadiums while poverty has remained constant since the end of apartheid and unemployment has risen. The allocation of more funds for security and the tourism sector while the gap between rich and poor has grown in the last 16 years and the standards of education have dropped since Bantu education was repealed. White Elephants exist across the continent but none so poignantly as in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) where the brutal dictator General Mobutu also directed funds to the building of a showpiece football stadium while thousands within the city had no access to clean water. It is not hard to see the comparisons here though no two countries can accused of being the same, there are obvious parallels.

The legacy of the World Cup becomes harder to measure once sound bite phrases like national pride, unity, reigniting the Rainbow nation and nation building all come into play. It is easy to speak of these and even to find anecdotal evidence of it, however, it is much harder to prove it and see a lasting effect of it. Let us not forget this is not the first time that the ‘new’ South Africa has claimed that racial tensions have been eased by a sporting event .

The fact remains however that South Africa proved nearly everyone wrong by hosting a near flawless World Cup and undid a lot of the damage that had been done with the Togo shooting in the African Cup of Nations, at least for the reputation of Africa to hold sporting events (whether this is justified or not is another question). It would be all too easy now to see the great stadiums that have been built half empty in the coming years and declare the whole thing a failure, but what South Africa has, and by extension the continent has, is momentum. The eyes of the World are now more likely to come back to the continent when people remember the Bafana Bafana, the vuvuzela and the vibrant displays of culture that South Africa produced. Right or wrong, South Africa became the focal point of the continent and when simplified like this the whole of Africa has the potential to benefit. This is not to say that Niger needs to host a World Cup, but the belief is arising that the continent is not incapable of helping itself, a view that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund propagated (both vocally and more subtly) for years. South Africa cannot afford to take their foot off the gas, because while we were told the entire World was rooting for their football team to succeed, the window in which the World is rooting for the country, and continent, to do the same is closing. After it shuts the Afro-pessimism that dominated the build up to the World Cup and most reporting on the continent regains its hegemony and we have to wait for another sporting event or humanitarian disaster to get people talking seriously about these issues.

A post by Nick Robbins

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 8, 2011 9:52 pm

    Happened to read this IMO good piece on SA, Africa and the WC some half a year after its posting, and found it somewhat desolating that no comment had yet been sent. It seems to me that the author has a genuine interest and cares for the continent, something I believe I do after work matters brought me to Africa and particularly SA a number of years ago and keep doing it almost yearly since. Thanks for the writing.

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