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Playing Games with the Poor: The 2010 World Cup in South Africa

Anna Majavu
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

Different oppressed groups in South Africa, having been promised for years that great things will happen to them during the World Cup, are now waking up to the fact that 30 days before kickoff their lives are unlikely to improve.

Those who work as taxi drivers, hawkers, and vendors have recently been displaced from their places of work amidst the different cities’ last minute frenzies to shut down entire streets in order to create tourist-friendly walkways. They say they are realizing with a shock that the World Cup will not only fail to bring the promised positive change, but that it has made their lives demonstrably worse.

Others who are not directly affected by the World Cup now see the connection between new multi-million dollar stadiums that they will never sit in, and having to walk for 20 minutes in rain or shine to go to the toilet in any nearby patch of land, because city authorities have no money for toilets.

In October 2009 more than a thousand schoolchildren from Mataffin township repeatedly clashed with police outside of the gates of the then unfinished Mbombela soccer stadium in Mpumalanga, widely seen as the country’s most politically corrupt province. In 2007 the $172 million stadium project displaced two school buildings and now the stone-throwing youth were vowing to block further stadium construction until local officials built them new schools to replace their temporary classrooms.

In March this year, the South African Disability Association protested outside Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, against the lack of accessibility of the 2010 World Cup Stadiums for persons with disabilities. The organization said that the FIFA Local Organising Committee (LOC) had not lived up to their promises that all stadiums make 0.5 percent of the total seats wheelchair accessible, and that there were no transport plans or fan park facilities suitable for disabled people.

In May, 100 hawkers protested outside the South African Football Association headquarters after having been evicted from trading at Soccer City. The authorities moved them to a spot almost three kilometers away. They told a local newswire that if the LOC did not revoke their decision, “there will be more demonstrations, more picketing and more sit-ins. They must not forget us and that fact that we fed the construction workers daily, with our affordable prices... we must be given our space,” said SA Informal Traders Forum chairperson Sam Khasibe.

South African authorities are also having trouble meeting the expectations they created with small business owners and the general public. Hundreds of small guesthouses are still not booked for the event, despite the government having said for the past few years that there would not be enough accommodation in the country for all the visitors—thus spurring guesthouse owners to spend thousands on upgrading and extending their premises.

Poor bearing the burden

Author Dave Marrs, writing for the local magazine Perspectives, points out that Citigroup economist Jean Francious Mercier said in a “ballpark assessment” report released in early March that the biggest beneficiary of any Football World Cup was invariably the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) in the short term, while the host nation almost always carried a disproportionate share of the cost burden.

Indeed, the City of Cape Town was forced to admit in April that it was bearing the cost of its new stadium’s enormous $80,000/month electricity bill, which it had not disclosed as part of the final cost of the stadium it released to the public. And, press reports indicate that none of the country’s new stadiums are likely to pay for their own construction by being fully booked for the next five years after the soccer event.

Nevertheless, FIFA is celebrating the final days before the extravaganza by trying to whip up a fever around “the fan experience,” while the government is speeding up the removal of the last remaining poor people from the public eye.

With no sense of irony, Cape Town’s mayor, Dan Plato, jumps into a cavalcade with officials from corporations like Coca-Cola and speeds off to the country’s fastest growing Black township, Khayelitsha, not to announce new housing projects or job creation plans, but to show off the World Cup’s 13-pound, solid gold trophy on a whistle stop tour.

In the meantime, about 95 miles from Cape Town, the authorities have made hurried plans to shut down a refugee camp for Zimbabweans displaced by a xenophobic attack last year.

Local refugee rights group, People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (Passop), says that with an expected 500,000 foreign tourists in South Africa, the last thing the government wants on display is a camp full of refugees braving the cold winter months in tattered tents.

The Western Cape is the only province, or state, of South Africa where the official opposition rules. This party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), suddenly gave the 1300 camp residents of De Doorns two weeks notice to leave the camp. The local council is run by the African National Congress (ANC), which also is in power nationally. A local ANC councilor, Mpumelelo Lubisi, is under investigation for allegedly masterminding and leading the attack on the Zimbabwean nationals last year. The Zimbabwean farm workers-turned-refugees have fast realized that political parties may be at war with each other, but they have one mind when it comes to clearing up the country ahead of the World Cup.

One reporter from Britain’s Guardian newspaper recently described the World Cup as a disgrace, saying “the greatest marketing opportunity of our time” was only contributing to deepening inequalities in the most unequal country on earth.

Not in the general interest
Whether oppressed groups will disrupt the World Cup in a bid to highlight their grievances to the world, is still uncertain. The residents of Cape Town’s Blikkiesdorp, or Tin Can Town, threatened several months ago to burn the so-called concentration camp down if they were still living there by June 2010. Now they are saying that government is building a new gate at the entrance to the “Temporary Relocation Area” to keep them locked in while the World Cup is going on. While government has strenuously denied that it would do such a thing, the gate has become a symbol of the government’s desire to enforce a curfew on the poor during the event.

Pamela Beukes of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign says communities plan to hold a mass march to Cape Town's soccer stadium as the World Cup starts. The organization will also hold a “soccer tournament for the poor people” in one of the streets of Cape Town's ghettoes, symbolizing their exclusion from the event.

The Church Land Project (CLP) says “the ‘mega-event’ is already impacting quite directly on land, housing, livelihoods, and infrastructure realities for many people in many cities and towns.”

“Given the absurd lengths that the 2010 champions are going to in order to present their projects as being in the general interest, and given the massive positive publicity the project secures, it is absolutely critical that the voices of those being hurt in the stampede are heard and strengthened,” says the CLP.

Organized labor in the form of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has been loathe however to link the billions spent on the World Cup to the plight of the poor. COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told a business newspaper in March that his federation was likely to protest against high electricity prices, but that they would not strike during the World Cup. COSATU was also criticized by the Workers International Vanguard League for their “unofficial policy of labor ‘peace’ during the world cup.” “The planned strike may not even happen, or a one-day symbolic stayaway may be held in October, long after the electricity price increases have hit the working class,” wrote the organization.

Indeed, COSATU failed to do anything more than kick up a fuss on paper when it was exposed that, through FIFA’s master licensee, the Global Brands Group, an ANC MP’s private company had been contracted to manufacture the World Cup mascot toys. The same MP swiftly outsourced the work to a sweatshop in China and was only shut down after being unmasked by the media.

COSATU’s tone has been defeatist. Perhaps knowing that they would never seriously challenge the ANC about the fact that 10 billion rand was being spent on building and renovating the ten stadiums without even one decent, permanent job being created, COSATU instead put out a mute cry for people to make sure that they bought only South African made World Cup goods.

One of the positive spin-offs from the World Cup has been the launch of a new campaign: “Decent Work Towards and Beyond 2010.” Hosted by the global federation of construction unions, Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), the campaign has brought together several different local unions from different political affiliations and local federations. The National Union of Mineworkers, Building Construction and Allied Workers Union and South African Building Workers Organisation bargained together quite successfully for improved wages, full-time health and safety officials on the sites, bonuses of about $1000, transport to and from the building sites, and free tickets.

In total, they held 27 strikes over a period of three years. They are now hoping the small victories they won will be continued by their Brazilian counterparts, after they officially handed over the campaign to the Brazilian unions last week.

In late May 2010 transport unions mounted a crippling rail strike for higher wages. During their protests, some workers chanted “No 15 percent, No World Cup.” But at the time of going to press, the government had intervened and was set to broker a deal to see the strike end quickly.

Profiting from climate change

The people living in South Africa were last month subjected to a massive 25 percent electricity price hike, forced on them by a ruling party obsessed with building two huge new coal-fired electricity stations. The ANC will rake in over $100 million in direct profit from the new power stations, since its front company owns 25 percent of the shares in Hitachi Africa, which has been given a $5 billion contract to install boilers in the new power stations. Critics have taken to calling party officials looking to get rich off of similar corrupt contract deals as “tenderpreneurs.”

The government’s response to climate change is also uninspiring. The two new coal-fired power stations are set to push South Africa’s carbon emissions up dramatically, and the South African government has thrown its lot in with India, China, and Brazil on climate change.

Environment ministers from all four countries, calling themselves the “BASIC group,” met recently in Cape Town and turned down the notion of any possibility of an alliance with Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela—who want capitalist states to pay reparations for climate change, and to commit to a global temperature increase of not more than one percent.

South Africa's minister of water and environmental affairs, Buyelwa Sonjica, is also in denial about the massive amounts of pollution to be emitted by the new power stations and left behind by acid mine drainage in coal-rich regions like Mpumalanga..

“Coal is part of the energy mix in South Africa. Really there is no way that we can rush to technologies that are not well developed. We can't say that solar can give us a reliable supply of energy. We can’t say we can fully rely on wind energy,” she said.

That the World Cup has failed to improve the lives of the poor, added to the fact that the public will also be paying back the interest on a $3 billion World Bank loan—solicited last month by the government for building the same power stations—the outlook is bleak indeed.

Anna Majavu is a political journalist for the Sowetan newspaper ( She writes in her personal capacity.