‘At Least Under Apartheid…’: South Africa on the Eve of the World Cup

Dave Zirin

At long last, soccer fans, the moment is here. On Friday, when South Africa takes the field against Mexico, the World Cup will officially be underway. Nothing attracts the global gaze quite like it.

Nothing creates such an undeniably electric atmosphere with enough energy to put British Petroleum, Exxon/Mobil and Chevron out of business for good.

And finally, after eighty years, the World Cup has come to Africa. We should take a moment to celebrate that this most global of sports has finally made its way to the African continent, nesting in the bucolic country of South Africa. And yet as we celebrate the cup’s long awaited arrival in the cradle of civilization, there are realities on the ground that would be insane to ignore. To paraphrase an old African saying, “When the elephants party, the grass will suffer.” In the hands of FIFA and the ruling African National Congress, the World Cup has been a neoliberal Trojan Horse, enacting a series of policies that the citizens of this proud nation would never have accepted if not wrapped in the honor of hosting the cup. This includes $9.5 billion in state deficit spending ($4.3 billion in direct subsidies and another $5.2 billion in luxury transport infrastructure). This works out to about $200 per citizen.

As the Anti-Privatization Forum of South Africa has written, “Our government has managed, in a fairly short period of time, to deliver ‘world class’ facilities and infrastructure that the majority of South Africans will never benefit from or be able to enjoy. The APF feels that those who have been so denied, need to show all South Africans as well as the rest of the world who will be tuning into the World Cup, that all is not well in this country, that a month long sporting event cannot and will not be the panacea for our problems. This World Cup is not for the poor – it is the soccer elites of FIFA, the elites of domestic and international corporate capital and the political elites who are making billions and who will be benefiting at the expense of the poor.”

On Thursday morning I was apoplectic and an umpire was the target of my rage. Yes it was irrational. Yes I probably need to start putting Prozac on my pancakes. But my anger was real.

That most exotic of baseball specimens—the perfect game—was yanked away from Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga by first base umpire Jim Joyce. As if the city of Detroit hasn’t suffered enough!

In South Africa, the ANC government has a word for those who would dare raise these concerns. They call it “Afropessimism.” If you dissent from being an uncritical World Cup booster, you are only feeding the idea that Africa is not up to the task of hosting such an event. Danny Jordaan the portentously titled Chief Executive Officer of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, lamented to Reuters, “For the first time in history, Africa really will be the centre of the world’s attention—for all the right reasons—and we are looking forward to showing our continent in its most positive light.”

To ensure that the “positive light” is the only light on the proceedings, the government has suspended the right to protest for a series of planned demonstrations. When the APF marches to present their concerns, they will be risking arrest or even state violence. Against expectations, they have been granted the right to march, but only if they stay at least 1.5 km from FIFA headquarters in Soccer City. If they stray a step closer, it’s known that the results could be brutal.

You could choke on the irony. The right to protest was one of the major victories after the overthrow of apartheid. The idea that these rights are now being suspended in the name of “showing South Africa…in a positive light” is reality writ by Orwell.
Yet state efforts to squelch dissent have been met with resistance. Last month, there was a three-week transport strike that won serious wage increases for workers. The trade union federation COSATU has threatened to break with the ANC and strike during the World Cup if double-digit electricity increases aren’t lowered. The National Health and Allied Workers Union have also threatened to strike later this month if they don’t receive pay increases of 2 percent over the rate of inflation.

In addition, June 16 is the anniversary of the Soweto uprising, which saw 1,000 school children murdered by the apartheid state in 1976. It is a traditional day of celebration and protest. This could be a conflict waiting to happen, and how terrible it would be if it’s the ANC wields the clubs this time around.

The anger flows from a sentiment repeated to me time and again when I walked the streets of this remarkable, resilient, country. Racial apartheid is over, but it’s been replaced by a class apartheid that governs people’s lives. Since the fall of the apartheid regime, white income has risen by 24 percent, while black wealth has actually dropped by 1 percent. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story, since there has been the attendant development of a new black political elite and middle class. Therefore, for the mass of people, economic conditions—unemployment, access to goods and services—has dramatically worsened. This is so utterly obvious even the Wall Street Journal published a piece titled, “As World Cup Opens, South Africa’s Poor Complain of Neglect.”

The article quotes Maureen Mnisi,  a spokeswoman for the Landless People’s Movement in Soweto, saying, “At least under apartheid, there was employment—people knew where to go for jobs.

Officials were accountable.” Anytime someone has to start a sentence with “At least under apartheid…,” that in and of itself is a searing indictment of an ANC regime best described as isolated, sclerotic and utterly alienated from its original mission of a South Africa of shared prosperity. A major party is coming to South Africa. But it’s the ANC that will have to deal with the hangover.



  1. aufzuleiden said,

    June 11, 2010 at 17:22

    It is truly a tragedy that, in the wake of the unifying win of the Rugby World Cup immortalized in the movie ‘Invictus’ there should be so many valid – and compelling – reasons for opposition to the FIFA World Cup of Soccer. There is no doubt that the profits made from this event will not go back to the impoverished, nor shall they be used to defray the costs of preparing the way for this event (were that the case events like the Olympics might actually become truly profitable for the host nation). Instead, the profits – and there shall be profits – shall find their way into the silk-lined pockets of the already rich (and mostly white) individuals who reap wealth from the work of others.

    As one comedian has said, ‘wealthy isn’t Shaqueil O’Neil – wealthy is the guy that PAYS Shaq for playing a game. THAT’S wealth. That’s what I want’. Well, while I’m not as mercenary, it is understandable – people don’t want ‘just a little’ – they want as much as they can get.

    The idea behind the World Cup in South Africa, I believe, transcends the economic issue – although that cannot – nor should not – be dismissed in a nation where poverty is the main root of most of the issues facing the nation. Many of the population continue to live in desperate poverty, without the benefit of what we would consider to be the basic ‘modern amenities’ – and yet, Soccer is something that they rally around as a national obsession … sort of. When they aren’t obsessed with Rugby.

    The dream of a truly unified South Africa is something that has not been realized – even after the tenure of President Nelson Mandela. Perhaps if he had been ten or twenty years younger and could have served several more terms in office, things could have developed more along the lines of what the nation needed to truly heal from the horrific scars left by the Apartheid regime, but time is not always a friendly ally and Mandela was not able – for whatever reason – to pursue a longer tenure as President of South Africa.

    A nation that relies merely on symbols to reflect ‘how far they have come’ will, in the end, be left with the vestiges of those symbols, but no real progress. In the case of the 2010 FIFA World Cup I fear that those vestiges will be a collection of expensive stadiums scattered across a nation that cannot afford to fill them. A nation with a population that does not have ‘disposable income’ for such frivolities as sporting events in luxury stadiums, or the money to ride on the transportation systems that take them to said stadiums.

    When all has been said and done, however, the 2010 FIFA World Cup HAS arrived, and – for better or worse – it is taking place in South Africa. Moreover, a South African has scored the first goal of the tournament, scoring against Mexico – though the game ended in a 1-1 tie, Siphiwe Tshabalala will go down in history as the first South African to score in a World Cup game IN Africa.

    While I cannot be pleased with the economic ramifications of this tournament – name one thing these days with positive economic ramifications (that is sort of rhetorical … but, given the oil in the Gulf of Mexico and everything else going on, ‘The Beautiful Game’ can – at times – be just that … a game) – I can’t help but hope that one of the African nations in the tournament wins the Cup.

    Algeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, and the Republic of South Africa – each nation (with the exception or RSA which had a buy into the tournament as the host nation) qualified and has a chance – in the last World Cup I was tremendously impressed with the playing from the Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon, and expect to see similarly brilliant performances over the next weeks.

    I suppose this is where we do the ‘it could have been worse’ part … well, look at it this way … it could have been worse: they could have given it to Israel (in which case I wouldn’t be watching at all).

    Wie viel ist Aufzuleiden!

  2. dissonance said,

    June 13, 2010 at 23:32

    here’s a different angle on the World Cup and Apartheid….

  3. manc said,

    June 20, 2010 at 22:20

    The same thing is happening in Canada right now against the indigenous people. Their communities are being destroyed by the government and no one notices

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