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Mark Gevisser

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

South Africa’s World Cup Moment

In the visitors’ Center at Cape Town’s new Green Point Stadium there is a quote by former president Thabo Mbeki: “The World Cup will be remembered as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely turned the tide of centuries of poverty and conflict.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu believes the tournament to be “as important as Obama getting into the White House” for black people; Nelson Mandela has personally selected (we are told) and participated in the recording of a song for the opening ceremony.

The redemptive expectations are huge — as is the optimism, since the Bafana Bafana, the South African team, beat Denmark in a friendly match over the weekend.

A generation ago Mandela’s support enabled the South African Springboks to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, and in the process, the myth goes, won white South Africans over to his side. If the Rugby World Cup offered political redemption, then, this month’s soccer World Cup has been peddled as some form of economic redemption.

But there is, in truth, as little possibility of economic benefit for the host nation as there is of victory for the home team.

Certainly, the World Cup gave the country a hedge against the global recession, and has produced a temporary growth spurt. It has prompted a very necessary upgrading of transport infrastructure, and has demonstrated that South Africa has formidable technical capacity.

But what was originally going to cost the South African taxpayer a few million euros now stands to cost anywhere between €3 and €5 billion. The country’s short-term returns on its investment will be minimal, and it could well be left with a herd of white elephant stadiums that will sap the economy for decades to come. The last three hosts of the World Cup — Germany, Japan and South Korea — could afford such risk. But can South Africa?

The town of Nelspruit, capital of a corrupt and desperately poor province, now has a stadium that cost €137 million and that will host four unmemorable first-round matches before beginning the inexorable process of tropical rot.

If Cape Town had upgraded an existing stadium rather than built a new one, it would have forfeited the ability to host one of the semifinals, but the state could have used money saved to house a quarter of a million people.

In Johannesburg, the cost escalation for the construction of the “African Calabash” to $350 million has meant a radical cutback in capital expenditure in a city that is falling apart.

Why did the South Africa fight so hard, and spend so much, to host this tournament?

The South African government believes the benefit is intangible, and immeasurable — a “Mandela moment” all over again; a jab in the eye of Afro-pessimism; invaluable global coverage; the cementing of national pride and identity.

The country is aglitter with flags, aglow with good feeling. The world is talking about South Africa, and South Africans themselves are using the tournament to imagine the country of their dreams. Can you put a price on that?

“No,” says a senior government official who was part of the process. “We could never have bought this market exposure.” Still, she admits, “it’s a huge risk. If we get it wrong, it could do serious damage to our reputation. When the world’s cameras are trained on you, sure they pick up the feel-good stories in this wonderful country, but they also look for trouble — which is not difficult to find in South Africa.”

South Africa has an obsession with reputation, manifested by a tendency toward bling: If we look good, we are good. A decade ago, this led the government into an arms procurement deal that cost the state $3 billion. It commissioned unnecessary jet fighters and submarines, which Mbeki defended by saying that South African needed to show the world that it was a global player.


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