South Africa and the World Cup Frenzy – A Success Story?

No local teams will be participating, but all eyes are already on South Africa in the lead-up to the World Cup next month – and the rest will be glued to the T.V. But amid all the glitz and glamour surrounding the World Cup, very little is being said about South Africa beneath the World Cup gloss.

We presume that such prestigious events as the World Cup can bring countless benefits to struggling societies, particularly those coming out of transition. In Northern Ireland, South Africa is held up as a model for post-conflict transformation and reconciliation, and yet the legacy we are beginning to see is not one of economic success and social integration, but of a widening gap between the rich and the poor and a meteoric rise in violent crime.

Investment, like that which comes with the World Cup, is supposed to be good for transitional societies – in fact just this morning, Declan Kelly, the US Economic Envoy to Northern Ireland, encouraged businesses “attract foreign direct investment and build on its social, political, and economic renewal.” Does investment bring economic, social and political “renewal”?  If we really are meant to learn from the South African experience, maybe we should take a closer look at what’s really going on.

Economic and social rights became law through the new South African Constitution formed after the conflict– one of the few Constitutions in the world to contain such rights and make them legally enforceable. However, concerns are surfacing as to whether the positive effects of the World Cup – both economic and social – will be felt by the poor of South Africa, as well as the rich, despite the equality enshrined in the Constitution.

An article on the BBC’s webpage details how local vendors are being barred from selling near World Cup stadiums without an ‘event permit.’ FIFA says this is to prevent vendors from profiting from the World Cup without contributing financially – but many vendors say they do not know how to go about getting a permit. So the World Cup continues to bring in billions of dollars, but the local people suffering in poverty see little of it.

One vendor interviewed said that “it is just a reminder that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.”

Perhaps even more disturbing are threats of violence being received by foreign nationals. They’ve allegedly been told that they have until 11 July – the end of the World Cup – to leave the country. This was reported in the Guardian:

“They say they will come after the World Cup and they will kill us,” said Ethel Musonza, 32, a mother of four. “These people are serious, they are organised, they know where we live. They say they won’t do anything during the World Cup because of the foreign tourists but afterwards the police will step aside and some of us will get killed.

In an informal settlement in East Rand, groups of men who claimed they took part in the “war” of 2008 have told foreign migrants and refugees to leave the country before 11 July. “We sat down and talked and said let us leave them until the World Cup is coming to our country,” said one, who admitted he broke the law to “protect his country from foreigners” in 2008.

“If we fight now, maybe they will stop 2010 … after that there is no one who can come to us and say don’t fight,” he added.”

Tensions over immigration, particularly refugees from violence in Zimbabwe, have run high since a period of violence in South Africa in May 2008. The government has been urged to deal with xenophobia ahead of next month’s World Cup.

None of this will be on display come June. The South Africa we’re supposed to see has turned a corner, and the World Cup is meant to give hope to ordinary South Africans and bring in money and jobs.

To be fair, some of the money brought in by the World Cup is being funneled into impoverished townships in the form of HIV awareness programs, among other things. Also, South Africa is certainly not the only country in the world dealing with social and economic strife. But it is the only country in the world hosting the World Cup next month, and using this to draw attention away from other things.

Football can offer a welcome distraction from things we’d rather forget, but maybe this should be a chance for the world to sit up and take notice of South Africa in a different way, and see how it can help.

Because how much change can a football tournament – even one as big as the World Cup – bring to a country?

Researcher, youth worker, human rights-er.

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