South Africans appear studiously underwhelmed by the award of the 2022 Commonwealth Games to Durban. The public response has been at best a yawn, with the general tenor being snipingly negative, which is par for the course when much of our political discourse is conducted in 140-character Twitter put-downs.
There was certainly little of the excitement that accompanied the award of the 2010 Football World Cup, even in Durban itself. SA television made much of the celebrating crowds but it transpires that the merrymakers comprised mostly a smattering of dutiful city officials and 1 500 boys deployed from George Campbell Technical High School.
Interest was dampened not only by the difference in the comparative size of the World Cup as opposed to the Games, but the fact that Durban was the only city bidding, following the withdrawal of the Canadian city of Edmonton. As one British Twitwit put it, “South Africans must be so happy at beating no other bidding nation to win the 2022 Games.”
In reality, Edmonton pulled its bid not because of the falling price of oil, as it claimed. It folded its hand because it was clear that SA bid would succeed.
There are other explanations for the ennui. The fizz of political optimism that in the early years of the 21st century buoyed SA’s successive World Cup bids has long since gone flat. This is now a country teetering on the edge of an economic chasm, erratically steered by a giggling president who is entirely lacking in the gravitas that earned his predecessors respect, however grudging.
Also, SA awoke from the 2010 FWC with an almighty hangover and its pockets skilfully picked by Fifa. Construction costs of the five new stadiums and upgrades to five others were originally estimated at R8 billion but were exceeded by a factor of five, while tourism revenue was barely half of what had been hoped for.
These new stadiums now mostly stand empty, a steady drain on the local authorities that were browbeaten into taking them onto their books. And to add insult to injury — as Fifa executives jump ship and turn tail in the face of United States investigation into corruption — there are the claims that the SA government paid $10 million in bribes to get the World Cup. That’s like tipping generously for the privilege of being mugged.
There is another aspect to SA’s indifference: the nation’s public face — and its perception of itself — is moulded by news organisations headquartered in Johannesburg or Cape Town. Durban is Cinderella-city and as for the hinterland and the coastal periphery, well they barely exist in the national media’s consciousness.
If only to interrupt this somnolence, one must be pleased that Durban got the Games. It is possibly the most under-rated city in the country, with an idyllic winter climate, good infrastructure, and a stunning array of tourist attractions, sweeping down from the Berg to the best beaches in the land.
And while one should resign oneself to the fact that the expenditure and revenue equation rarely works out the way it is predicted to, this is not going to be another World Cup money pit for taxpayer funds. The Treasury will put up US$470 million, calculating that the immediate boost to gross domestic product will be in the region of R11 billion. In comparison, the 2014 Games in Glasgow cost the British fiscus about US$570 million, while the 2018 Gold Coast Games are budgeted to cost the Australian taxpayer around US$760 million.
No new sporting infrastructure has to be built, with the possible exception of a gymnasium venue to which the Commonwealth Games Federation will contribute. And at least the Moses Mabhida Stadium — already an international architectural icon — will earn some of its keep, instead of just standing around beautiful but empty.
But at the end of the day, we need to look beyond the balance sheet. The World Cup was on the face of it financially disastrous, with its single memorable legacy being the Gautrain, but its real legacy is substantial, albeit intangible.
A world that is chockablock with Africa-sceptics — sadly many of them passive-aggressive SA whities engaged in wish-fulfilment — were confounded in their strident claims that SA did not have the organisational resources to pull it off. So the real pay-off to the virtually flawless hosting was international kudos and self-respect.
This will be the first Games on African soil. Indeed, since their inception in 1930, Games have only alternated between the “white” Commonwealth nations, with the exceptions of Jamaica in 1966, Malaysia in 1998, and India in 2010.
That the Games are coming here not only signals shifts in power and influence within the Commonwealth. It signals an ascendance of Africa on the world stage, a process given impetus by World Cup. We should be proud.
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