Examine the latest available Human Development Index (HDI) figures — a measure of education, life expectancy and standard of living — and you will find that the 2010 World Cup hosts are ranked 129 out of 182 UN member states. Or a whole 19 places below both Gaza and the West Bank. The effect of the blockade of the former is not yet included in the retrospective reports but the discrepancy between South Africa’s GDP and HDI makes it, as its Gini coefficient score also reveals, the most unequal country on the planet.
Much is, rightly, made of corruption. But little is said of how market state policies fashion business opportunities out of public sector needs. Neoliberalism has turned 16 years of “freedom” into a Trojan horse of disconnections, evictions and more shacks fashioned from corrugated iron and plastic. Over a period of 14 years, the 2006 Human Development Report calculated that 34.1% of South Africans lived on less than $2 a day. The 2009 version now estimates 42.9% do.
But as atrocious as these figures are, one statistic takes the breath away. Life expectancy has, according to the South African Medical Research Council, fallen by 13 years in a similar period. Read that again. It’s an apocalypse attributable not only to Thabo Mbeki’s HIV/Aids denialism, but to the way income inequality and poverty continue to impact the disease.
It’s instructive, then, that in its 2010 Index Of Economic Freedom review, the conservative Heritage Foundation gave South African government expenditure a rare approving score noting that, as a percentage of GDP, it was “relatively low”. The corollary is that South Africans are so often protesting the absence of any public service that the country has been labelled the “capital of protest”. Against these realities, the spending of close to R33 billion on a football tournament is testament to there being no concern for the national welfare among its decision makers.
For if there was, it would have been clear that mega-events laid on for the benefit of tourists, while reaping financial rewards for an investor class, have few payoffs for the populace. Temporary, low-skilled and poorly paid jobs do not constitute a solution to South Africa’s attritional 40%-plus expanded unemployment rate, which post-2010 will witness a zero-sum increase. Nor do feel-good factors translate into effective investment in the longer term. On the contrary, as Orli Bass and Udesh Pillay of the Human Sciences Research Council insist, there is “scholarly consensus” that the multiplier for a mega-event will be lower than that for spending on local goods and services.
More pressingly, poor South Africans cannot eat a legacy discourse. With an education, health, housing and jobs crisis so severe it can only, indeed, be compared to the aftermath of a scriptural catastrophe, the government’s spending on the World Cup exacerbates an already extreme state of affairs. We should be outraged that a country with such a brutal history of forced removals has, in order to create the right brand attributes, evicted the urban poor and rounded up the homeless. Dumped into so-called “temporary relocation areas” and “transit camps” (during the preliminary draw, street children were even held in Westville Prison) these disowned South Africans make a mockery of the struggle against apartheid.
How apt, therefore, that among the brands that will benefit from this beautification strategy, will be a company that refused to disinvest during the darkest days of the old regime and which now, as an official partner of Fifa, gives its name to the Coca-Cola Park stadium? But not just anyone will be allowed to participate in what President Jacob Zuma calls “the greatest marketing opportunity of our time”. Informal traders — a significant part of the working poor — are subject to a verbatim “exclusion zone” from the bonanza in the fan parks, fan walks and stadiums. For them, the World Cup may as well be happening on another continent.
While 2010 Organising Committee CEO Danny Jordaan compares the staging of such an event to a “second liberation“, we shouldn’t be surprised if those who are struggling for a meaningful notion of citizenship continue their public protests during the tournament. Undoubtedly, they will be deemed unpatriotic for disrupting the whole PC-PR-Potemkin village atmosphere. They will horrify the press whose accreditation with Fifa hangs on not engaging in conduct that detracts from the sporting focus. The police will, as is routine, shoot at them with buckshot, rubber bullets and teargas.
Nonetheless, they would be right to try using the leverage afforded by this vanity project to remind the world that they — and not its elites — are South Africa’s best hope for a much-needed sense of reality.
This post was originally commissioned and published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free site.