World Cup countdown (2 weeks): economic benefits, scare stories and the need for changing how Africa’s recognised in the world

On this third instalment on the World Cup countdown special (see here parts one, on music, and two, on football – in Spanish, but with videos), I’d like to dwell briefly on some of the social an political aspects surounding this World Cup, and the debates that it has generated. We need to start by saying that any event of this size and nature – whether it is the World Cup or the Olympics Games- is likely to generate extremely polarised opinions wherever it takes places. We’re seeing this on the run-up to the 2012 London olympics, and it happened, for example, in Spain with Barcelona 1992. Nevertheless the fact that this is the first time any such event takes place on the African continent makes these debates particularly poignant and relevant. A really interesting and thourough debate on the potential impact that the World Cup could have for (South) Africa, you can see this video of a discussion that took place at the New School and was hosted by Sean Jacobs from “Africa is a country”:

The main points for discussion relates to the economic benefits that the World Cup will generate for South Africa. Most economic studies about this are not very optimistc that the World Cup, by itself will give a significant boost to the country’s economy. Furthermore, numerous commentators make clear that, whichever benefits the World Cup may bring, these will not compensate the massive spending that government is doing. Some of the money is being spent on infrastructures, like the high-speed train connecting Jo’burg airport to the city centre, but a large chunk of it has gone to building stadiums which, it is feared, will turn into “white elephants” once the world cup is over. The main hope for economic stimulus thus, came from the tourists were expected to visit South Africa during and aroung the World Cup. However, these hopes however appear to be somewhat dampened for the fact that fewer tourists are now expected to travel down to the country (300,000, less than the 450,000 originally expected), probably as a consequence of the economic crisis. the question however, revolves not only about the number of tourists, or how much they are willing to spend on these hard economic times, but about who will benefit from this spending.

It is on this front that the most important – and deserved – criticisms are being made. And they’re mostly directed to FIFA’s management of the World Cup’s image and merchandise rights, and the “exclusion zones” established around the stadiums, and in which only “commercial partners” of the football association will be allowed to operate. All of the above points out to a sad scenario: one in which the average South African will not benefit dirctly from the World Cup, as tickets are too expensive (or, as we have just seen, the ticket selling system collapses creating chaos among those that had been waiting for hour!) , small entrepreneurs will be prevented from making money from tourists, and even the South African manufacturing industry will not see much profits, as most of the merchandise for sale is made in China.


(h/t A Bombastic Element)

As well as the lack of potential economic benefits for South Africa, the organisation of one event like this, also carries potential risks, especially those relating tho the well functioning and security to of all those involved on the event. All points out however, that the South Africa 2010 World Cup will be a success, with all stadiums and infrastructures. Regarding the security aspect, there is not much to be feared, despite some of the European media (a.k.a. the Sun) scare stories about a possible terrorist attack (denied by Al-Qaeda itelf); the “violent gangs lurking on the shadow on Cape Town’s football stadium”; or the “ongoing repetition in our media, that 40 000 ‘prostitutes’ are set to be trafficked into South Africa ahead of the World Cup”. In fact, perhaps some of the most pressing security and organisational issues refer to the seating arrangements at the VIP area during the openning and closing ceremony and about a potential visit by President Barack Obama, which has SA police chief praying the US get knocked out of the tournament at an early stage.

All of the points touched about are important criticisims not only of the existing inequalities within South Africa and at the international level, or of how the World Cup is organised. They reveal deeper criticisms of the system that underpins these sporting events, as well as the world of football, the economic system generally. This intersting (if somewhat exagerated) article on The Guardian by David Rucniman, reflects on how globalisation has generated a specific economic system for African footbal, that is present in countries like Ghana or Ivory Coast:

The fruits of this system will be on display at the World Cup, but so will its pitfalls. The best African teams have to be put together from players who are scattered more or less at random across Europe and often have few links back home. Some places get lucky and produce a small nexus of superstars: this is often because the arrival of one outstanding player breeds interest from agents sniffing around for the next big thing. But success also breeds greed and corruption, and leads the caravan to move on to look for untapped (and cheaper) sources of talent. Almost nothing gets put back into the infrastructure of the African game, so no country can plan for the future.

There are thus numerous reasons to be critical of how things are being done around the World Cup and on the footbal world more generally. Nevertheless, we canot forget that the World Cup is much more than the economic calculations; it is about the optimism, energy and sense of pride it gives the country that organises it. All of the world’s eyes will, for one whole month, be focussed on South Africa – and by extension – on the whole of Africa. For this reason, it is important that the World Cup aims to give the world more than simply a well organised tournament. Here, as often is the case, some of the most insightful worlds have been pronouned by the Cameroonian intellectual (resident in Johannesburg), Achile Mbembe. although written in 2006, they are still relevant, and were recently re-posted on Africa is a Country:

“That Bafana Bafana (the national football team) will not win this competition is a public secret. Now, if we cannot win on the soccer field and if our victory won’t be economic and financial, then we better start thinking hard about changing the very terms of what it means to win at all. Our victory can only be a cultural and moral victory. We will win the 2010 Soccer World Cup if we organize it in such a way that it powerfully contributes to changing the terms of Africa’s recognition in the world. If the 2010 World Cup succeeds in fundamentally altering the ways in which Africa’s voice is expressed and heard and Africa’s face is seen in the world, then this – and this alone – will morally justify the colossal amounts of public money spent on this very postcolonial and megalomaniac venture.”

World Cup countdown (2 weeks): economic benefits, scare stories and the need for changing how Africa’s recognised in the world

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