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 80 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.”
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 2% over the rate of inflation.
In addition, June 16th, 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% while black wealth has actually dropped by 1%. 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 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.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected] Contact him at [email protected]]