The South Africa World Cup: Invictus in Reverse

Johannesburg — You see it the moment you walk off the plane: a mammoth soccer ball hanging from the ceiling of Johannesburg International Airport festooned with yellow banners that read, “2010 Let’s Go! WORLD CUP!” If you swivel your head, you see that every sponsor has joined the party — Coca Cola, Anheuser-Busch — all branded with the FIFA seal. It’s when your head dips down that you see another, less sponsored, universe. Even inside this gleaming state-of-the-art airport, men ranging in age from 16-60 ask if they can shine your shoes, carry your bags, or even walk you to a cab. It’s the informal economy fighting for breathing room amidst the smothering sponsorship. Welcome to South Africa, a remarkable place of jagged contrasts: rich and poor; black and white, immigrant and everyone else. On a normal week, it’s the dispossessed and the self-possessed fighting for elbow room. But the 2010 World Cup, which starts in 90 days, has taken these contrasts and propelled them into conflict.

The present situation in South Africa could be called “Invictus in reverse.” For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the film Invictus is about the way Nelson Mandela used sport, particularly the near all-white sport of rugby to unite the country after the fall of apartheid. The coming World Cup has in contrast, provoked the camouflage of every conflict to present the image of a united nation to the world. As Danny Jordaan, the World Cup’s lead South African organizer said, “People will see we are African. We are world-class.” Note that the concern is about what the world sees not what South Africans see. What South Africans see, as one young man told me, is, “Football … looting our country.” The contrasts are becoming conflicts because the government at the behest of FIFA is determined to put on a good show, no matter the social cost.

There are the dispossessions as thousands have been forced from their homes into makeshift shantytowns, to both make way for stadiums and make sure that tourists don’t have to see any depressing scenes of poverty. The United Nations even issued a complaint on behalf of the 20,000 people removed from the Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town, called an “eyesore” by World Cup organizers.

There is the crackdown on people who make their living selling goods by the stadiums. Regina Twala who has been vending outside soccer matches for almost 40 years, has been told that she and others must be at least one kilometer from the stadiums at all times. She said to the Sunday Independent, “They say they do not want us here. They do not want us near the stadium and we have to close the whole place.” In addition, FIFA has pushed the South African government to announce that they would arrest any vendors that sell products emblazoned with the words “World Cup” or even the date “2010.” Samson, a trader in Durban, said to me, “This is the way we have always done business by the stadium. Who makes the laws now: FIFA?”

Samson was only referencing the threats toward vendors, but he could have been speaking about the series of laws South Africa has passed to prepare for the tournament. Declaring the World Cup a “protected event”, the government, in line with FIFA requirements, has passed by-laws that “spell out where people may drive and park their cars, where they may and may not trade or advertise, and where they may walk their dogs.” They’ve made clear that beggars or even those found of using foul language (assumedly off the field of play) could be subject to arrest.

Then there are the assassinations. In a story that has garnered international news but little buzz in the United States, two people on a list of 20, have been assassinated for “whistle-blowing” on suspected corruption in the construction of the $150 million Mbombela Stadium. The Sunday World newspaper attained the list, which included two journalists and numerous political leaders. There are accusations swirling that the list is linked to the ruling African National Congress, which the ANC has denied in bizarre terms, “The ANC…wants to reiterate its condemnation of any murder of any person no matter what the motive may be,” said ANC spokesperson Paul Mbenyane. It’s never a good sign when you have to make clear that you are anti-murder.

All of these steps — displacements, crackdowns on informal trade, even accusations of state-sponsored assassinations — have an echo for people from the days of apartheid. It’s provoked a fierce, and wholly predictable resistance. In a normal month, South Africa has more protests per capita than any nation on earth. But when you factor in the World Cup crackdown, a simmering nation can explode. Over 70,000 workers have taken part in strikes connected to World Cup projects since the preparations have begun, with 26 strikes since 2007. On March 4th, more than 250 people, in a press conference featuring representatives from four provinces, threatened to protest the opening game of the Cup unless their various demands were met. These protests should not be taken lightly, A woman named Lebo said to me, “We have learned in South Africa that unless we burn tires, unless we fight police, unless we are willing to return violence on violence, we will never be heard,” Patrick Bond from the Center Civil Society in Durban said to me that protests should be expected: “Anytime you have three billion people watching, that’s called leverage.” Indeed. There is a scene in Invictus where Freeman’s Mandela says, “I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. I am the master of my fate.” The people of South Africa still consider themselves unconquerable: whether they face apartheid, FIFA, or their current government. But FIFA insists with equal insistence that the World Cup will brook no dissent. In 90 days, we’ll find out who masters the fate of this beloved country.

Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner). He can be reached at: Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. mrtc46 said on March 15th, 2010 at 9:29am #

    Africa is gonna be a unpleasent place to have the world cup. sorry but it is the truth

  2. Scribe said on March 26th, 2010 at 1:07am #

    I have to agree with the bunch of letters and numbers above. I’m going to call him Mr. 😉 I live in South Africa and I found this article informative and shocking.
    On top of all this nonsense there are other reasons this world cup is likely to be a disaster. Our broadcast and internet infrastructures are utter garbage compared to international expectations.
    Johannesburg International Airport has been under construction for years and, technically, still is.
    An announcement was made by the roads department last week, stating that the roads are finished and ready for the World Cup. What they mean is that the toll booths they’ve put up on every major highway around Joburg, are ready to be put into action. The roads themselves are actually in a worse state now (in terms of moving traffic) than they were before all the construction began. The only way in which they are “finished” is that now the government can start charging locals and World Cup visitors alike ridiculous amounts of money to use them.
    Crime is rampant, as we all know and I would warn the international community to stay home and watch the tournament on TV. A better experience all round. If you must come visit South Africa, come after June and stick to the Cape.

  3. GillDFreeo said on March 29th, 2010 at 3:55pm #

    I’m disappointed to see the negative comments! To those of you out there who aren’t South African or who have not witnessed the spirit of the people – you are ABOUT TO! South African may not be perfect – but as a Nation the World Cup will unite everybody! In 1995 when we won the World Cup, there was not a person out there who wasn’t ecstatic – a triumphant spirit surged throughout the Nation.

    South Africans are a spirited people. There are many differences and we don’t always agree, there is a hell of a lot to be sorted out in the coming decades, but I’m DEEPLY PROUD of a people who are integrating more than ever! I look forward to wowing the visitors and the disillusioned folk out there – reminding them that it is actually NOT a nation divided! We ALL want it to work, we all want spirit and joy and harmony! Every body, whether your tribe is black, white, brown … we are ONE TRIBE. South Africans, let’s stand proud and show the world what I’m talking about!!!