World Cup 2010: Whose Party?

In Cities on July 13, 2010 at 11:49 am

A South African comrade reflects on the impact of the World Cup industry on ordinary South Africans.

Whether 2010 is the “best World Cup ever” (according to FIFA President, Sepp Blatter) remains to be seen. However, it will certainly go down as one of the most interesting, which may have less to do with drama on the pitch and more to do with the political and social reactions off it. While most left-wing analyses of the event, including many of my own, have focused on the negative impacts that 2010 will have on ordinary South Africans, the wildcard in all this has precisely been the way in which ordinary people have reacted to the biggest tournament in the world.

For the last few months, both the state and corporate advertising have almost been legislating for a Bacchanalian frenzy during the event. Yet, many ordinary South Africans have claimed the carnivalistic element of the tournament for themselves in ways that are humorous, spectacular, bizarre and touching. The central paradox of 2010 may turn out to be that this mega-event designed to serve the pecuniary interests of transnational capital and the South African state elite may in fact unleash popular energies and expectations that the authorities are unprepared to deal with longstanding problems of SA police brutality, (e.g. the torture in 2004 of Landless Peoples Movement activists, and police general Bheki Cele’s 2008 ‘shoot to kill’ order in KwaZulu-Natal).

Before turning towards some of my own personal experiences of what the World Cup has meant so far, a few words are necessary on the relationship between the South African government and FIFA. The Swiss-based cabal has in effect privatised the popular game of soccer as a commodity which it sells to its corporate backers for lucrative advertising space. Before a single ball was kicked, the organisation had already made over $3 billon in broadcasting rights: as a result anyone who watches a game will find the national logos of the players dwarfed by the signs of Adidas and Coca-Cola.

While FIFA strives to present itself as a philanthropic body concerned only with the future of the beautiful game, in reality it is more of a parasite leeching off the body of state funding. South Africa has hemorrhaged over R44 billion into stadiums and other infrastructure. As part of its legal requirements as a host (a word which works on two levels in this context), it has to meet every whim of FIFA: from deploying special police to protect against unaffiliated advertising near stadiums (the horror!) to providing entertainment and five star accommodation for all FIFA delegates and their families.

However, this is not just the textbook neo-colonial relationship of an African country being hammered by the demands of “the West’’. Instead, the South African government actively pandered to this from actually seeking the bid to continually meeting FIFA’s most petty demands. The state is hoping that this event will serve a range of long term goals from shoring up popular support to cementing South Africa’s position as the pre-eminent power in sub-Saharan Africa. Crucially, both the parliamentary opposition and the media, normally quick to jump on any evidence of ANC malfeasance have acquiesced in this process through treating the World Cup as sacrosanct. This kind of subservient boosterism has reached sublimely farcical levels. For instance, the state has set up special courts to process World Cup related cases. A recent expose by journalist Lionell Faull showed that many of these are in fact standing empty: yet another example of the grotesque leveraging of public funds into white elephant preparations. However, Western Cape premier Helen Zille cited the same article as proof of South Africa’s ability to “deliver’’ an “efficient and modern’’ judicial system.

This dreamland of World Cup promises extends to the popular benefits it was supposed to engender: hundreds of thousands of jobs. Billions in GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. The clear fact that these were hollow promises has been brushed aside with vague mumblings about nebulous foreign investment and trickle down economics. From national government downwards everyone is trying to get their piece of the action: even host cities are competing amongst themselves to become the most gentrified “World Class Cities’’. Taking the idea of treating the state as a branch of advertising to its logical conclusion, cities have licensed images of their stadiums and fan parks to various corporations. For example, the Cape Town stadium belongs to Hyundai, the Moses Mabidha stadium (named after a venerable leader of the South African Communist Party) has gone to Coca-Cola. It seems the trajectory of who really scores in the World Cup is clearly delineated.

These mumbled and ambivalent promises are also shored up by the perception that the event will at the very least, in the words of a well-respected South African journalistic cliché, “unify a deeply divided country’’. It’s easy to see this as so much cynical politicking. Certainly the bombardment of corporate advertising, with it stock series of clichés and parade of atrocious theme songs (worst of the tournament must go to Somalian ‘’rebel rapper’’ K’naans, whose horrific ‘’ Wavin Flag’’ is a vague anthem of political upliftment that chimes nicely with Coca-Cola’s CGI’ed adverts of South
African life). But it would be a misreading to see all this excitement as simulation.

I was in Cape Town for the opening match and it was like being in a city transformed. I have never seen so many people, South African’s of all races and classes, congregating in a kind of beneficent chaos. Even the police had to step aside as South African’s would have the party that has been promised to them: the fact that ordinary people will be paying for the event for years to come makes a month of hedonism particularly urgent. And as I have travelled around the country, I have noticed a real atmosphere: people seem more relaxed and civil even. Certain still well established divided have been breached, albeit temporarily. This is not just the case of rich whites learning to use the Vuvuzela: it is also the case of a space of shared public participation and sense of joined excitement. And there are other things at play which suggest that there is more to this than just a temporary feel good hedonism. Ordinary people talking about FIFA’s transparent and unhesitant greed and the South African state’s collusion in this: there is a sense that the country has been swindled and taken advantage of. These may be small stirrings as yet but in a year when the BP disaster has unmasked (again) the utterly venal nature of corporate power, it is heartening to see that FIFA has been unable to hoodwink the South African public.

A walk around the Cape Stadium on Monday the 14th prior to the Italy-Paraguay match brought many of these issues to light (British readers will be heartened to know that on the way I made the effort of giving the finger to the official Sun supporters bus and will surely appreciate this noble gesture against the Murdoch empire). One is confronted with a huge mass of police milling around and doing nothing as part of the bid arrangements: many were listlessly hanging around McDonalds. Even more heartening was the sight of the stadiums security guards on strike angry at the pittance they were being paid. These strikes were also repeated at several other stadiums aimed at the practises of the company that FIFA had outsourced too, Stallion Security. In the week that followed. There were similar strikes in Johannesburg and Durban. Predictably, the state was forced to step in and clean up through replacing the strikers with police officers. These strikes are significant as they seems to be the first time that concrete protest has been made against the soccer Czars during a World Cup. And in addition, many of the country’s labour unions are threatening to conduct high-profile strikes ignoring cynical government arguments that such actions would be unpatriotic during the World Cup.

FIFA and the state may have patronisingly assumed that people would be happy with scraps from their table, but in their arrogance may not have recognised the fact that South African’s are still prepared to take their grievances to the streets. In a more oblique way, this was brought home by the attempt of two stewards to scalp their free tickets to me and my friend Willem. FIFA has predictably been apoplectic about this, but really in a country with the highest rate of economic inequality on Earth this seems like a fair way of making some extra money, not to mention piquancy of the corporate robber barons being themselves outfoxed.

The South African state may collude in its own self-destruction tournament as it strives to meet the almost farcically avaricious demands of FIFA and its partners, but in the midst of this ordinary people have been hacking out public spaces of participation for themselves. It can only be hoped that this will open a space for dialogue and action. In addition, the fact that the national team has been kicked out of the tournament after a frustrating performance means that for the next few weeks the country will be in essence a theme park for tourists now that the nationalist component of the event is no longer viable. Conversely, South Africans are now the spectators in their own country: the result of this remains to be seen. While much of our media focuses on labour unrest and other actions during the event as a negative thing, in reality it shows that radical forms of participatory democracy are alive in South Africa: this is the reality which stands against the common media image of a happy African wilderness eager to participate in its own disenfranchisement.

Christopher McMichael is a PhD candidate at Rhodes University


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