2010 FIFA World Cup: More than just football for SA?

Image: Flickr,Andrew Moore
Image: Flickr,Andrew Moore

South Africa is ready to host the biggest sporting event this continent has ever seen.

Home-ground advantage and support might just lift the national team, Bafana Bafana, to progress beyond expectations to the knockout stages. The country will also benefit from improved roads, larger airports and brand new world-class stadia. But apart from these sporting and social benefits, the 2010 FIFA World Cup offers South Africa a chance to profit politically, by helping to improve its international image and encouraging all its citizens to unite behind a national project.

Following the release of Nelson Mandela from prison 20 years ago, the end of apartheid and the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa’s peaceful transition was seen as a miracle by the international community throughout the 1990s. However, this changed dramatically in the new century, as the country’s image suffered repeated blows, especially in the international media: the Arms Deal scandal, deadly xenophobic violence in 2008, allegations of corruption against the future President, the denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama and the controversial statements made by the ruling party’s Youth League. The recent murder of white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche, linked by some to a climate of violence propagated by controversial anti-apartheid era struggle songs, prompted the British tabloids to warn would-be World Cup visitors of “a civil war looming in South Africa” with “machete-wielding gangs roaming the streets.” While these sensationalist reports are obviously false, they can and do harm the country’s image externally.

South Africa now has a chance to prove its critics wrong and burst the negative stereotypes. Hosting a successful World Cup, with a billion people expected to watch the final on TV, gives an unprecedented opportunity to showcase the country’s rich diversity, friendly people and attractive cities.

With many in the international media seemingly already waiting for South Africa to fail, the country needs to try hard to avoid slip ups. The same mistakes that were forgiven to organisers of previous tournaments are likely to be blown out of proportion and described in every possible detail. The chaotic over-the-counter ticket selling process in April, which saw thousands queue overnight only to see the online system crash and leave many without tickets, made headlines for all the wrong reasons. A thorough testing of the servers by FIFA and First National Bank could have easily avoided this fiasco. FIFA also recently claimed that only 220,000 tourists are likely to visit South Africa this June and July instead of the projected 550,000. Economist Mike Schussler said: “Our own greed contributed to it through expensive hotel prices, flights, etcetera.” One must remember that the World Cup is not just an opportunity for the government to showcase itself – everyone in South Africa will be an ambassador. Managers and staff at airports, car hire agencies, hotels and restaurants will all play a big part in forming impressions of South Africa that will stay with the tourists long after the final whistle is blown on 11 July.

There is much to gain internally too. The recent heightened racial tensions surrounding the “Shoot the Boer” song, the ruling party’s unwillingness to back down on it and the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche, all suggest that 16 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa remains a divided country. Many politicians routinely play the race card. In recent controversies the former Athletics South Africa CEO and the Gauteng Premier have publicly blamed the “white-owned media” and the “white ratepayers” for respective problems within their departments. Prior to the Freedom Day celebrations on 27 April, it was reported that a hoax SMS made the rounds warning that “pamphlets were being distributed to encourage black people to kill as many white people as possible during the public holiday”.

In the current situation, one needs to take a balanced view and acknowledge that while much progress has been achieved since 1994, many challenges and inequalities persist. These challenges should not be exaggerated, but should spur a national debate on how to build a non-racial society, where people think of themselves first and foremost as South Africans.

Major sporting events have the potential to unite a nation, especially on home soil. “Football Fridays”, on which all South Africans are encouraged to wear their replica soccer jerseys, have proved that football is not a sport exclusively favoured by one racial group. South Africans of all races proudly wear their Bafana Bafana shirts.

The rhetoric of South African politicians about unity fails to materialise in practice, because they do not give the people a common cause. With so many cleavages and so few common goals, maybe getting behind the team can provide an opportunity for all South Africans to unite. Offices should all close a few hours before each Bafana Bafana game, or arrange for employees to watch the games together.

All South Africans should see this World Cup as an opportunity to pay a final tribute to Nelson Mandela, without whom this tournament would not have been awarded to the country and without whom Bafana Bafana would have been barred from playing wherever it did take place. A call to dedicate the FIFA 2010 World Cup to Mandela would remind the rest of the world about what made the country a success story in the first place and bring back the spirit of 1994 to unite the people of South Africa.