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The Promise of an African Pot

Joel Krupa

© Penguin Books Ltd.

As I shuffled through the hordes of screaming Dutch fans and delirious Spaniards on 11 July 2010, I couldn’t help but feel like I was a part of history. It was a chilly winter night in Johannesburg and the sky was lit by an impressive array of stars. Despite having never attended a football game of any kind before, I was now about to enter Soccer City—the vaunted venue for the 2010 World Cup Final. This monolithic stadium, looming high over Nobel laureate and liberator President Nelson Mandela’s former township of Soweto, is designed to resemble an African pot streaked by flames. On this particular night, it was conveying its designer’s intent admirably: a glowing beacon of hope and celebration.

For the next 150 minutes, I enjoyed up-close and personal interactions with some of the finest footballers in the world, culminating in a hotly contested 1-0 decision for Spain. The final whistle marked not only the end of an international sporting match, but a historic, triumphant moment in Africa’s troubled history. On a continent known more for its failed states than for its miracle moments, the first World Cup/Olympics on African soil meant a great deal to South Africa. For a month, a starkly divided nation coalesced and put on an incredible show for the world. South Africans of all walks of life—rich and poor, young and old—came together to celebrate their shared dreams of a better life.

There is no single sporting event that captures the global imagination in quite the same way as the World Cup. Its heroes, its venues, its advertisers—countless hours are spent debating and dissecting even the most ostensibly mundane topics. We collectively marvel at the beautiful stadiums built for a few matches and gasp at the vast expenditures assumed by the host country. Regardless of their sporting affiliations or country of origin, it seems like everyone has an opinion on at least one aspect of the games.

This year, the bulk of the commentary was reserved for discussions surrounding the choice of South Africa as host nation. Football fans fretted and feared the worst. Could South Africa, still recovering from the scourge of apartheid, overcome its sometimes chaotic governance structures and successfully pull off enormous logistical and construction challenges in time? Was it possible for this long-suffering nation, with one of the world’s highest per-capita murder and rape rates, to protect massive influxes of tourists, players, and its own citizens? How could a country justify spending billions on sport when so many of its citizens lived in dire poverty?

Of course, we now know that South Africa performed admirably and exceeded even the rosiest of expectations. The games went off virtually mistake-free, tourists marvelled at the natural beauty of the countryside, and South Africans were congratulated for their stunning hospitality. Crime plunged significantly and foreign visitors were able to travel safely and efficiently. Nearly everyone left impressed by the progress and hopeful for the future of Africa’s biggest economy and only G20 member.

Yet such positive results partially mask the tremendous work that still needs to be done. For example, South Africa has the dubious distinction of being one of the most unequal and dangerous places on Earth, even though its robust constitution has provided admirable rights on a normative level for all of its citizens. A sizable gap remains between discussion and implementation as the country is marred in a vicious cycle of inequality. According to the Gini coefficient index (a well-respected metric for measuring the levels of inequality in a society), South Africa is ranked 129th in human development (12th overall in Africa), and is beset by sprawling crime-ridden areas in urban centres like Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Racial tensions are another potentially explosive issue that came to the forefront in the multi-ethnic glow of the World Cup. The legacy of apartheid, with its dictates on the supremacy of whites and the systemic oppression of non-white South Africans, is still palpable. Julius Malema, the controversial populist head of the dominant African National Congress’s youth movement and an important political figurehead, has grown increasingly antagonistic. He recently led chants of “shoot the boer” (an anti-apartheid song about murdering white Afrikaans people) and openly calls for the nationalisation of mines to free South Africa from its white oppressors. The hatred festers both ways, with many white people openly spreading thinly veiled racist views. Eugene Terre’Blanche, an unrepentant white supremacist and a key political opposition leader, was murdered in his home last spring, bringing the racial issue to the fore again right before the cup.

The country is a struggling democracy, with a seemingly endless array of issues to resolve. HIV/AIDS, rampant xenophobic attacks against desperate foreigners from countries like Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and stunningly high levels of unemployment hovering around 40% threaten to derail the progress that has been made in other areas. The Republic of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has called 2010 “the most important year in our history since 1994”, the year in which South Africa held its first fully democratic elections. The World Cup, with its emphasis on inclusion and its multi-ethnic feel, certainly made a wonderful contribution to this new democratic spirit; however, even the most ardent optimist can see that South Africa still has a long way to go before it can fully realize its promise. The light from Soccer City will only continue to burn bright if it doesn’t blind the world to the country’s existing problems first.

Joel Krupa is reading for an MSc in Environmental Policy at Mansfield College, Oxford.