Thursday, June 10, 2010

Episode 1: Selling South Africa: Poverty, Politics and the 2010 FIFA World Cup [Part One]

Download: MP3, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis [4:44 minutes]

In South Africa, where massive amounts of public and private spending on the upcoming 2010 Soccer World Cup are expected to salve a faltering economy and crippling poverty. Most South Africans, however, will see little direct or sustained economic benefit from the games let alone muster the funds to even purchase a ticket.

What is trumpeted as a branding and investment remedy to South Africa’s economic woes may very well become another Greek tragedy – where the legacy of the 2004 Athens Olympics has contributed to an economic meltdown. These global games offer dual incentives to both local and foreign business elites and little to a frustrated local population. On the one hand, investment, sponsorship and tourism opens new markets to foreign capital while local business elites profit from a heightened global image. At least, this is the story sold by both the state and World Cup planners. Central to this strategy is selling South Africa as a marketable and consumable brand.

South African planners have estimated that the World Cup will contribute approximately $5.5-billion (U.S.) to the economy and create 415,000 jobs, but these figures are ephemeral and unmeasurable. For the 50 per cent of South Africans living below the poverty line the games will not lead to better housing, healthcare or employment. The World Cup is the playing field for many of the debates dominating South African currently: the nationalization of mines and resource industries; land redistribution and privatization of energy and telephone services. This debate also reflects the bad blood and deep divisions between the ANC and its trade union and communist allies. The international football body FIFA, and its corporate sponsors, want South Africans to forget this debate is happening. Their belief that global games are beneficial to the world is not only highly misleading, but it presents neoliberalism as the only solution to national economic development. It asks the leading question: How would South Africans get better roads and sporting facilities if not for the World Cup? Their discourse is hard to counter. Behind it are the powers of a world built
upon power relations – adding the sexiness of sport gives great symbolic force to these unequal relations.

For one month an estimated 400,000 fans will descend on cities throughout South Africa, and millions more will tune in to watch the largest sporting spectacle hosted, for the first time, by an African nation. Beer guzzling soccer fans at World Cup stadiums will have no choice but to down American Budweiser and Coca-Cola in terms with strict FIFA sponsorship rules. Fans will fill seats at stadiums costing over $1.8-billion (U.S.) and travel on railways and roads specially upgraded for them. From this vantage point they will see the World Cup’s real winners: Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates, Sony, Hyundai, Visa, Budweiser, Castrol Oil, Continental Tire, McDonalds, YingLi Solar and Indian IT supergiant Mahindra Satyam. In addition, there are five national sponsors, which include South Africa’s largest bank FNB, British Petroleum and the semi-privatized telecommunications company Telkom.

This spending in stadium construction and infrastructure renewal comes as the nation is experiencing its first recession in seventeen years with GDP growth for 2009 now in the red at -0.3 percent. High levels of private investment are supposed to dampen the negative impact of global recession, but as some analysts have pointed out, the games need to do more than just ensure a short-lived tourism boom. If public funds can be found to pad tourist seats, then funds can, and must, be found to deal with the impact of low economic growth on the most disadvantaged sectors of the population. Township shack dwellers, for example, whose numbers have grown by 50 per cent in the first ten year of post-apartheid democracy, have little to gain from billion dollar stadiums.

This article was written by Chris Webb, a South African journalist, scholar and activist living in Toronto. His writing has appeared in Canadian Dimension, New Internationalist, Canada's History and the Winnipeg Free Press. He is the Publishing Assistant at Canadian Dimension.