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Mark Gevisser

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Archive for the ‘Sport’ Category

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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Notes from the 2010 World Cup Debate at London’s Southbank Centre

Last month, for the London Book Fair, I took up the whistle to “ref” a panel of exciting young South African authors “kicking the ball around” on what the World Cup means to the home team.

Fascinatingly, and unexpectedly, the match turned out to be between the South African panellists on stage at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, and the audience in the auditorium. And the way it all came to a head prompted me to buy a ticket home.

Volcanic ash meant that several of the participants were unable to make it to the book fair, which had a South African focus this year. But I was pleased to announce that we could call off the bench the former ANC MP and arms deal-buster Andrew Feinstein and the award-winning playwright Nadia Davids (both of whom live in London), and that, for one match only, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, the Lucas Radebe of South African letters, would be coming out of retirement to play at being a young South African author.

On stage, they joined fiction writers Zukiswa Wanner and Henrietta Rose-Innes, and we began to talk about how we felt about the World Cup. Feinstein and Davids, in particular, criticised the expenditure on the tournament, Davids citing the subject of her latest play, the activist Cissie Gool: “How can you build a stadium in a sea of poverty?”

We spoke about South Africa’s obsession with reputation (“world class!”), and about the manic-depressive nature of the South African psyche: we’re either “the world’s greatest fairytale” or the next Zimbabwe. We spoke about how patriotism sneaked up on us: Feinstein wept at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and Wanner is gobsmacked that she finds herself singing the national anthem along with the team. And we spoke – how could we not? – about winning and losing.

When it was Ndebele’s turn, I regretted immediately comparing him to Radebe: his soft, sure touch made him nothing less than a Pelé. He began obliquely by talking about one of the great loves of his life: Moroka Swallows. The worse they played, the deeper his affection ran: “They play, they lose, and I love them.” His manner, self-effacing yet authoritative, made the point: you don’t need a team to win to love them; you don’t need a country to be “world class” to think it’s great, or that you’re OK.

It was masterful, a beautiful pass across the somewhat cranky critiques of the others (myself included) on stage. But not clear enough, yet, to set up a goal: in question time, the audience took the ball in another direction entirely. Our critiques might be valid and informed, a Londoner said, but weren’t we missing the point? Was the World Cup not a celebration of both Africa and the Beautiful Game? How could you put a price on that?

Several audience members made the same point. I looked around the hall and clocked the demographic: most of those present were either South Africans or – the greater part – progressive Londoners passionate about football, or the kind of African upliftment that the World Cup promises, or both. An older woman, clearly steeped in the culture of international solidarity, urged us to consider the importance of national happiness in South Africa; a “Saffer” asked us, plaintively, to talk about the “mood on the ground”, which she believed was more ebullient than we allowed. Why, she wanted to know, weren’t we more celebratory?

I offered that, while the US constitution guaranteed the right to happiness – a fabulous thing – the South African one entrenched the right to dignity, as did the German one; testimony to the two nations’ traumatic histories. I suggested that a successful World Cup would have to offer both happiness and dignity to South Africans: those rich enough to attend a match, and those too poor, even, to have access to a television.

But it was “Pelé” Ndebele who saved the day. Davids had spoken about how, back home, you were compelled to be “for” the World Cup or “against” it, and how she resisted such binarism. Now Ndebele took the notion a step further, converting it – in this humble referee’s opinion – into a goal. What we were doing that night, he said, was precisely the kind of celebration the audience members seemed to be longing for. The gathering and the discussion was precisely the reason why South Africa was “world class”, with or without an international commercial jamboree; with or without a winning team.

This is what I understood from Ndebele: what the world needed to celebrate about South Africa – what we needed to celebrate in ourselves – was the way we had talked our way out of civil war and into freedom; how we continued to hold – on every corner, around every table – the national conversation on freedom. This, rather than the rah-rah of a football win or the sparkle of a stadium, is what defines us; this is what makes us South African. This, rather than the billions squandered on bling in the bushveld, is a future we can bank on. This is our “brand essence”.

I’m not sure if anyone noticed that my voice cracked a little as I blew the final whistle that spring evening. During the discussion, I had repeated what my friend Mario, a German, had said about seeing the 2006 World Cup in Berlin at a time when the wall still stood firm, metaphorically, between East and West: “Watching those matches in the fan zones gave us the opportunity to imagine, for a few brief weeks, the Berlin of our dreams.”

My anger at both Fifa and the South African government remains unstemmed: for the obscenity of the World Cup expenditure, and the lie that it is going to provide some kind of economic redemption. But the way things panned out in the Purcell Room made me feel that I needed to be back, if at all possible, for at least some of the World Cup. So I’m coming home in June: I want to imagine the South Africa of my dreams.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times


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