The World Cup begins this weekend here in South Africa, with the home team playing Mexico on Friday before 95,000 fans at Johannesburg’s Soccer City.
But regardless of whether ‘Bafana Bafana’ (our boys), ranked #90, can survive this and the next matches against France and Uruguay to advance a round, we know this society is already a big loser. The reason: egregious mistakes made by national and municipal governments, apparently under the thumb of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa).
A barrage of flag-waving, vuvuzela-blowing hypernationalist publicity cannot drown out at least six critiques of the World Cup:
1) dubious priorities and overspending;
2) Fifa super-profits and political corruption;
3) heightened foreign debt and imports amidst generalized economic hardships;
4) the breaking of numerous trickle-down promises;
5) the suspension of democratic freedoms; and
6) repression of rising protest.
Consider each of the six red cards in turn. Could U-turns mitigate the damage?
First, overspending has been most obvious at the stadiums, including new grounds (in Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Nelspruit and Polokwane) plus extravagant refurbishment expenses for Soccer City.
Which events can fill these stands after the last soccer match in July? How many officials had Durban-type delusions – i.e., that we will successfully bid for a future Olympic Games? These white elephants cost the state $3.1 billion in subsidies.
The most expensive, at $580 million, is Cape Town’s Green Point, with 65,000 seats. It was foolish and racist, for the existing soccer stadium in Athlone township could have hosted the semifinals with an additional layer of seats. But no, according to a Fifa report, “A billion television viewers don’t want to see shacks and poverty on this scale.”
Durban’s 70,000-seater Moses Mabhida, the $380 million ‘Alien’s Handbag’ (according to comedian Pieter Dirk-Uys) is delightful to view, so long as we keep out of sight and mind the city’s vast backlogs of housing, water/sanitation, electricity, clinics, schools and roads, and the absurd cost escalation (from $225 million).
Harder to keep from view is next-door neighbor Absa Stadium, home of Sharks rugby, which seats 52 000 and which easily could have been extended, considering that the municipality will knock out 15 000 seats from Mabhida after July anyhow.
The Sharks have said they cannot afford to make the move to Mabhida because of high rental costs, and a titanic battle lies ahead over destruction of the older stadium to force the issue, threaten Durban officials.
Amnesty for this red card would be imposition of a windfall tax on profiteering construction companies, directing revenues straight to neglected township facilities, including dusty, rocky soccer pitches.
The second red card is Fifa’s culture of corruption and excess luxury in South Africa, the world’s most unequal major country. It’s not just Fifa boss Sepp Blatter’s own insensitive demands, such as the installation of fine new luxury toilets at one of SA’s leading hotels.
Reports of bribes for players, referees and officials are emerging. Lord Triesman, who chaired England’s Football Association and headed its 2018 World Cup bid team, last month claimed in a taped phone conversation that Spain and Russia are intent on paying referees to fix matches. Journalist Declan Hill remarks, “Nothing at Fifa has been effective in stopping this kind of stuff.”
Other corruption includes the death penalty imposed on whistle-blowing in the eastern-most city of Nelspruit: at least eight suspicious kills associated with the new 40,000-sesater Mbombela stadium, and a hit list indicating profound splits in the ruling party.
The biggest corruption problem, as British journalist – and author of the gripping book Foul! - Andrew Jennings puts it, is that “The unaccountable structure they’ve installed is honed to deliver the game to the needs of global capitalism – with no checks or restraints. Just cheques.”
Those outflows are reason enough for a third red card: the huge import bill and rise in SA foreign debt to more than $80 billion. In agreements Pretoria tried to hide from the Mail&Guardian newspaper, it is now evident that Fifa not only will pay no taxes, the Zurich soccer gnomes can also ignore SA exchange control regulations.
Since the Fifa profit estimate is more than $3 billion (the TV rights alone sold for $2.8 bn), the export of funds will hit SA’s current account balance hard. Already we are at the very bottom of the emerging markets rankings for this reason, making likely a currency crash sooner than later.
As senior financier Trevor Kerst observed of stadium subsidies last month, “The return on that investment is by no means assured. Within these exclusion zones, only Fifa and its partners may sell any goods; nothing from these sales accrues to the government.”
Who are these partners? The Khulumani Support Group joined Jubilee South Africa to demand reparations payments from firms which supported apartheid, a matter currently in the US courts through the Alien Tort Claims Act. Khulumani has begun its own red card campaign against corporate sponsors of the German and US teams who show up on the defendant docket: Daimler, Rheinmettal, Ford, IBM and General Motors.
Fifa ‘partners’ who bought exclusive rights to monopolize commerce in SA’s cities these next four weeks are Adidas, Coca-Cola, Air Emirates, Hyundai, Sony and Visa, while ‘official sponsors’ include Budweiser, McDonalds and Castrol.
Worse, the construction bubble has been driving our economy, just as happened in the US prior to its crash. New luxury transport infrastructure, for example, gambles on shifting rich people’s behaviour away from private cars. But the $3 billion Gautrain rapid rail costs riders five times more than previously advertised and probably won’t dislodge Johannesburg-Pretoria commuters, thanks to traffic jams and parking shortages at the new stations.
As labour leader Zwelinzima Vavi, put it, Gautrain “does nothing for those who really
suffer from transport problems – above all, commuters from places like Soweto and Diepsloot. Instead, it takes away resources that could improve the lives of millions of commuters.”
And was a new $1.1 billion King Shaka International Airport wise for Durban, given that the old one had excess capacity until 2017, and given the doubling of distance and taxi fares from central Durban?
Mitigating these red cards requires a full rethink of government’s relaxation of exchange controls and its high-end infrastructure spending. Re-imposition of the capital controls so as to halt capital flight, and new housing/services subsidies for townships and rural areas are both overdue.
A fourth red card is the lack of trickle-down to the masses, witnessed in wasted opportunities – such as the trashy Zakumi doll mascot made in Chinese sweatshops, not here – and municipalities’ brutal displacement tactics. Informal street traders are furious at being barred from selling in the vicinity of games, as are Durban fisherfolk evicted from the main piers in early June.
Crafts, tourism and township soccer facilities were all meant to benefit. But as SA Football Association Western Cape provincial president, Norman Arendse, confessed, Fifa’s ‘fatal’ top-down approach left grassroots soccer with merely ‘crumbs.’
Most sickening is our betrayal of helpless street kids. On April 1, 2009, at the Fourth SA Aids Conference, Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe promised that “street children would not be whisked off the streets in the backs of police vans before the 2010 World Cup kicked off in the city, only to miraculously reappear on the streets when visitors had returned home.”
Turns out he was April-fooling with us. Whisking is underway, and as Durban NGO Umthombo director Tom Hewitt remarked in February, “Removing children for the World Cup is not about child protection but about cleaning up the streets.”
Others pissed off by Fifa and local World Cup elites are AIDS agencies trying to distribute condoms, an idea which repelled the Zurich gnomes. Environmentalists are disgusted with the tree-planting ‘offset’ gimmicks that some municipalities boast to make the Cup less of a contribution to global warming.
A red card need not be slapped on municipalities if they reverse such policies and urgently inform Fifa that local business Exclusion Zones are now inside not outside the stadiums, so that local informal traders, fisherfolk and street kids can get on with their lives.
The fifth red card is for Fifa’s takeover of SA’s sovereignty.
Consider what civil society groups trying to arrange a pro-education march to Union Buildings learned last week: “We have just been informed by Johannesburg Metro Police, without any substantive reasons or legal basis, that all marches and gatherings, including ours, have been banned in South Africa for the whole of June until 15th July. Our hard won constitutional rights, for which we continue to struggle, cannot be taken away by the whim of police-officers or politicians.”
Most chilling is that not only does Fifa get full indemnity “against all proceedings, claims and related costs (including professional adviser fees) which may be incurred or suffered by or threatened by others.”
Journalists getting Fifa accreditation must also pledge not to throw the World Cup ‘into disrepute’ while reporting, at the risk of being banned. With such pressure, no wonder that the superb documentary film Fahrenheit 2010 was censored by the three major SA networks in recent weeks.
In addition, confirms one official agreement, SA will provide police specifically “to enforce the protection of the marketing rights, broadcast rights, marks and other intellectual property rights of Fifa and its commercial partners.”
There appears, however, to be a bit of wiggle room here, and the red card could certainly be appealed if state militarists U-turn. Indeed, in Johannesburg, today’s march to Soccer City against Fifa was provisionally allowed earlier this week, so long as the Anti-Privatisation Forum agreed to stay more than 1.5 km away from Fifa HQ.
Another test is an anti-Fifa march on June 16 commemorating the Soweto uprising, which activists in the newly-reconstituted Durban Social Forum have been planning for several weeks. On Friday, they argued the case for marching to City Hall –a couple of km south of Mabhida Stadium – whereas the cops were insistent they should be shunted yet further southwards to Albert Park.
In Cape Town, local Abahlali baseMjondolo activists promised to erect shacks next to Green Point Stadium this weekend; city officials vow to bring out the demolition squads.
How mean might the cops get? The sixth red card goes to the SA police for their repression warm-up, starting with general Bheki Cele’s 2008 ‘shoot to kill’ order as security minister in KwaZulu-Natal promised, quickened with clampdowns on striking workers and then last week’s murder of service delivery protesters in a township (Etwatwa) east of Johannesburg and in Soweto, and also of two young men in Phoenix, Durban which catalyzed a demonstration against police brutality.
The necessary U-turn would include a cease-fire by a police force now aiming its guns at the people. To avoid a red card (and red blood in the streets), SA’s securocrats should now point fingers and detective investigations at the real criminals, from Zurich, a wicked mafiosi group whose nickname now is ‘Thiefa’, for obvious reasons.
Or put more positively, as did the National Union of Metalworkers’ spokesperson Castro Ngobesi in an official Bafana-boosting statement yesterday, “The opening match should serve as defiance to the barbaric, immoral and exploitive Capitalist system, for football by its nature promotes communalism and sharing – key elements of Socialism.”