Just over a week has now passed since South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup began. Writing from Cape Town, I remain just as conflicted about the matter as I was eight days ago. I was a staunch critic of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, primarily because of its extreme corportization, the further marginalization of already poor communities, and what I considered to be an insane focus on a one-month party while ever-pressing economic, political, environmental and social concerns were put on the backburner. Undoubtedly, the concerns differ little when considering South Africa’s World Cup: corporate logos heavily grace airways, taxi cabs, billboards and stadiums, townships have sprouted up with the singular purpose of housing those removed from host cities with the all-too-familiar excuse of “cleaning up the streets,” and the country has swept concerns of dire unemployment rates, poor health indicators, and racial and social tensions under the rug in the name of nationalism and sport.

And yet, despite an increasingly long list of concerns, I haven’t been able to fight the 2010 fever. Try as I may to be critical, and despite all that I read, learn, observe and disagree with, I cannot deny just how much fun this whole shenanigan is. Cape Town has never had so much colour and life, never been teeming with just so many excitable people from around the world. I’ve never been a soccer fan, but have found myself enraptured in thrice-a-day games and all night parties. I cannot count the number of times I have shouted “Ayoba” and “Ke Nako,” the two central themes to the tournament (which, it should be noted, are copyrighted).

And so, the dilemma persists: between useless, unnecessary, unattainable spending, and a really awesome party that allows South Africa to hold a special place in the heart of the world like it does in its’ inhabitants.

On paper, I am vehemently against the country’s hosting of the tournament. South Africa has already forked over R17.4 billion, or $2.4 billion Canadian, a number that dwarfs its spending on social and economic development programmes, health care, education, housing, and other essential services, all of central concern to the millions who are considered to live in poverty. Notions that this expenditure is simply a one-off investment which will be easily repaid through business earnings during the Cup and increased investment and tourism afterwards are, quite simply, ludicrous: hoping for an economic miracle resulting from a sports event is shortsighted and daft. One need only to look at other countries’ hosting of such events to understand that debt is the only consistent long-term effect of such luxurious spending.

The idea that a glimmering South Africa complete with shiny new stadiums would spur local development was quickly shattered, due in large part to FIFA’s unwavering focus on corporate sponsors. While the country has prided itself on manufacturing and selling South African goods post-apartheid, most of the Association’s sponsors are based in the U.S. and Europe. An article published in The Economist noted that while the country expected a .5% growth rate resulting from the games, FIFA’s own profit from the 2006 Germany games teetered at just over .7% of South Africa’s total GDP. Save for some local bars, restaurants and hotels that are well placed on tourist drags, local businesses have reported a far lower increase in sales than originally expected and hoped for. Average South Africans-many of whom primarily work in menial, short-term labour-have seen a short increase in available work, but few long-term opportunities have emerged. Vendors are certainly able to sell more t-shirts and sodas than a usual South African winter would provide, but a one-month injection of cash will do little to ease the country’s economic woes. In a most ironic twist, Chinese manufacturers of the now-infamous plastic vuvuzelas and millions of waving flags have made infinitely more profit from these “proudly South African” symbols than South Africans themselves, who are left with the task of simply selling these figmentations of nationhood to fleeting passers-by.

Any remaining notions of economic development were quickly dashed in the tournament’s first week, when striking security workers around the country were immediately replaced with members of the South African Police Service. These workers had many reasons to strike, working long hours without contract and receiving approximately R16 (or $2.17 Canadian) an hour. Rather than negotiating with workers, police officers-under orders of the state-have essentially acted as scabs, with the government overlooking legitimate grievances in order to keep the ever-watchful FIFA happy. This move is indicative of a greater crackdown on citizens’ constitutional rights throughout World Cup. South Africa has always had a robust history of strikes, marches and protests: indeed, such actions were instrumental to the ending of apartheid, and have since become central to the country’s national identity. Yet organisations and individuals hoping to air grievances of economic inequality, poor health spending, and other social ills have been told that they have to postpone this truly South African practice of taking it to the streets throughout the Cup. Permits for marches and protests have been all but denied. Should there be any question about police action, one need only to look to treatment towards striking workers in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, who were often largely outnumbered by their uniformed counterparts.

Only notions of nation building and pan-Africanism have dwarfed development claims. On principle, I detest nationalism, and my loathing for flag-waving, face painting and anthem singing were all central to my aversion of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Yet I am more easily persuaded by South African nationalism, which stems from a much more colourful variety: there is some sort of satisfaction in watching Desmond Tutu dance the Waka Waka and seeing the country’s fans loudly take to the streets, showing the world all they’ve got. Despite this, many criticisms of the World Cup have centered on what is considered to be pseudo-nationalism, which disregards racial, economic and social segregation so central to the workings of the country. While it is possible for black and white together to chant for Bafana Bafana, it is less possible-cynics would say even impossible-for the white Boer to lunch with the black farmhand. In some ways, this is part of the beauty of soccer, and perhaps one of the only redeeming qualities of the World Cup: its true ability to bring very disparate people passionately together, if only for a brief 90 minutes. Perhaps it should be noted and even congratulated that the government is attempting to host the tournament in part to bring a divided country together.

But flag waving and soccer chanting will only take this place so far, and for so long. In many ways, the World Cup provides the opportunity for these divisions to widen further, as those already economically and socially powerful are better placed to reap the benefits of the event than those who struggle even without it. It is important to note that criticisms of faux-nationalism stem largely from the black population, historically and persistently most economically repressed and as such least likely to benefit from World Cup mania. It is much easier for a white business owner benefiting from an influx of hooligans to spout the glories of a sporting event than it is for a black working class family that continues to see few economic opportunities and instead faces a headache of transportation and other logistical concerns stemming from suddenly over-burdened cities.

Indeed, the strengthening of these divisions and dashed hopes of World Cup success have been projected to lead to further xenophobic violence like the attacks which occurred in the country in 2008. As soccer fever subsides and the country faces what has been referred to the ultimate hang over, organisations like Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) and the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa fear that the post-World Cup environment will act as the “perfect storm” for another round of violence, with South Africans further discontent with poor service delivery and slim economic opportunities, and with the government economically unable to provide necessary means to even temporarily quell such concerns. Regardless of whether or not such fears materialize, their very existence mocks stated notions of pan-Africanism central to the country’s, Association’s, and corporate sponsors’ justification of South Africa as host nation.


I could go on about the problems with the World Cup, for there are many: the poor reporting by Western media, still centering on the now-tired stories of muggings and violence; my annoyance with both 8 a.m. vuvuzelas and complaints about said 8 a.m. vuvuzelas; the impossibly disturbing fact that large public hospitals have been transformed into media hubs, leaving patients with nowhere to go in a country heavily burdened by HIV and tuberculosis. But I began this article saying that I was conflicted about the World Cup, and so must tell you where my conflict lies. I am having fun. Lots and lots of fun. I have seen South African pride like that heretofore unknown, I have felt a sense of pan-Africanism amongst those who hail from and are simply visiting the continent. Regardless of the myriad of problems, those I meet here on a day-to-day basis want this event to be a success, if for no other reason than out of love for South Africa and Africa more generally. This pride comes not from a sense of loyalty to Jacob Zuma or neglect of the country’s troubled history, but from a love for the continent’s people, beauty, strength, and a celebration of its independence and burgeoning identity. In many ways, this year’s World Cup is allowing people to see what those of us who live here has always known: this place is amazing, unusual, and changing. To be so staunchly critical of the World Cup denies the beauty that such an event does offer. South Africans have always known how to come together when necessary, and how to a proper jol, and this event provides an opportunity for the world to share in this hospitality and joy. So while the hangover will be brutal and I fear long lasting, at least-since the event is already underway-we will have had a spectacular party in the meantime. This country certainly does know how to get down.


Mara Kardas-Nelson

After graduating from the University of British Columbia, Mara Kardas-Nelson decided to pursue her latent dream of becoming a journalist, and has since been published in Canada, the U.S. and South Africa....