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.

The result was a cesspit of corruption and intrigue that played a significant role in bringing Mbeki down and has also severely compromised his successor, Jacob Zuma. Now, with the World Cup, there are indications once more that the huge, rapid expenditure toward a deadline-driven goal has created similar conditions of corruption and intrigue that might fester for years.

Perhaps the country’s reputation-anxiety has its roots in the way the African National Congress made the South African liberation struggle the great moral cause of the late 20th century, and then in the way Nelson Mandela became a global icon for forgiveness and reconciliation.

This, coupled with the economic development that the apartheid state was able to attain through the exploitation of its black majority, has enabled South Africa to punch well above its weight.

But much as the redemptive aspirations of the liberation struggle gave South Africans the impetus to build their new society, it has resulted in a manic-depressive political psyche: If we are not the “rainbow nation,” the “world’s greatest fairytale,” then we must be another African basket-case.

Lost in these mood swings is a sober and realistic assessment of social change; one which works incrementally rather than through mega-events such as the World Cup.

In Johannesburg, I am struck by the contrast between the two structures that will be used for the World Cup: the brutalist concrete apartheid-era Ellis Park stadium looming over inner-city decay on the one hand; the spherical and sculptural “African Calabash” of Soccer City on the other.

Johannesburg brands itself as a “World Class African City,” and the calabash was built to beam this impression to the world. But it serves another function too: at a time when it seems increasingly difficult to hold the Rainbow Nation together, it provides South Africans with the fantasy of containment within a single shared national identity.

At Ellis Park, you cannot but notice the grubby city all around you; at Soccer City, you enter an African dreamscape. And so the distance between them is not just the 20 kilometers on the impressive new Bus Rapid Transit system: it is the distance between a real, messy South Africa and the “Mandela Miracle” fantasy that at times enables, and at time oppresses, the country.

Perhaps it’s a journey we South Africans have to travel — at a time when our society is becoming more unequal, such performances of national pride may indeed be priceless.

Mark Gevisser, the author of A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the future of the South African Dream.