The World Cup:  Big Win or Own Goal?

The World Cup: Big Win or Own Goal?

by / 1 Comment / 29 View / 23rd May 2010

Coming hot on the heels of the 1994 ANC election victory and a much-lauded first year in power, replete with calls for reconciliation and the creation of the rainbow nation, the 1995 Rugby World Cup was a sporting, political, international and PR triumph for Nelson Mandela and South Africa.

The sight of a jubilant Mandela embracing Francois Pienaar was more than just the joy of sporting victory, it was the joy of victory for the new South Africa and the embracing of the symbol of African resistance with the symbol of Afrikaaner sporting prowess.  Symbolic it was, but important nonetheless for the message of reconciliation, for South Africa’s self-esteem and for its international reputation.

Can the soccer World Cup do the same?  Can it rejuvenate a fading rainbow and give new hope as the poor majority in South Africa still wonder whether they will ever see any of the gold at the end of that rainbow?

Well, on the sporting field, I doubt we will see Bafana Bafana winning the final as the Boks did in ’95.  And no matter how what you believe of the press coverage of his personality and predilections, Jacob Zuma is no Nelson Mandela.   There will be no crowning Mandela/Pienaar moment. But could the competition and the money and attention it attracts lead to a more concrete, if less symbolic, step forward.

The president who got the World Cup for South Africa and was in power as the preparations got underway, Thabo Mbeki,  predicted the competition would be the moment when Africa as a continent turned ” the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict – a huge claim, even by Mbeki’s “African renaissance” standards.

But others have, albeit from positions from which they could hardly say otherwise, made equally grand claims.  Danny Jordaan, the chief executive of South Africa’s organising committee claims that the event will come to be seen in the same context as Nelson Mandela’s release and the first truly democratic elections, in 1994.  That is perhaps going a bit too far, even if the event is a huge success.

South Africa has made extraordinary efforts to build the stadiums, the transport, broadcasting and other infrastructure. True it has had to go back to FIFA recently and ask for more money, but $3.3bn has been raised by FIFA from sponsorship and broadcasting deals and South Africa itself has invested over $5bn in preparing the competition.

That infrastructure will stay after the World Cup – though of course internationally there is still huge disagreement over the real legacy for the people and economies of countries who host World Cups, the Olympics and other huge events. Hundreds of thousands will visit South Africa – probably about 300,000.

But this is fewer than hoped for – not because of any doubts about South Africa’s ability to hold the event, not even because of the usual scare stories about violent crime.  It is simply because of the state of the global economy and effects of recession in Europe and the Americas.  Not so many people can now afford to travel and spend several weeks , if not a month, in hotels.  Nevertheless, they will spend huge amounts of money, injecting cash into an economy that needs income for development, job creation and poverty reduction. So the economic benefit might not be as great as hoped, but it will still come as a welcome boost to the national and local economies.

Zuma’s big fear, though, will be another humiliating story about the president’s private life – his many marriages and his admission about having had an illegitimate child with the daughter of senior SA World Cup official Irvin Khoza, have done little for his national or international reputation – or another outburst by Youth League head Julius Malema or, though this on past record may turn out to be an empty fear,  some outrage by the Afrikaaner extreme right as revenge for the death of Eugene Terreblanche. These are the fears that must haunt Zuma.

His reputation abroad is not good.  He needs a very good World Cup from all points of view to help put behind him the corruption allegations, the ANC in-fighting to get rid of Mbeki, the antics and outbursts of Malema and his own bedroom antics.  On the plus side, the ANC had publicly, if rather mildly, chastised Malema for some of his more ridiculous statements and the political temperature seems to have dropped in the months since the AWB leader’s murder.

The 2010 World Cup will not be a rerun of 1995 whatever happens, but Zuma must be hoping that his team, his country and his ANC colleagues help him use South Africa’s time under the floodlights of world attention to get him out of the international sin bin.

Keith Somerville – is in charge of the undergraduate journalism course at Brunel University, UK.