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South Africa

The World Cup Losers

At the gate stands a small security outpost where they ask where you are going. “I have a meeting with the Bishop”. “One moment”, replies the makeshift guard, before checking a list to ensure a journalist is scheduled to arrive. The Johannesburg Methodist Church is a monumental edifice built to demonstrate the church’s glory and might in the very heart of the city’s business district. Yet today, its size is being used for alternate purposes, with room to provide shelter for up to 2,000 African refugees who Bishop Paul Verryn has taken under his wing. The majority hail from Zimbabwe, although people from other countries, such as the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan and Somalia, are also present.

Verryn has played an active role in South Africa’s social struggles since the 1980s, when he served as pastor to a small church in Soweto and spent his time presiding over the burials of activists, murdered by police forces.

Perhaps because he has seen it all before, he seems wholly undisturbed by the destitution order the South African Methodist Council has sent him. “The Council have buckled under pressure from the government, who regard the refugees as a nuisance”, he explains, despite express warning not to communicate with the press. “But the entire congregation is united around this project, and they will fail”.

Verryn and “his refugees”, as the local press have dubbed them, are, in reality, World Cup victims. And they are not alone. Across the country, thousands of people, most often the poorest of the poor, have been displaced by the construction of infrastructures directly or indirectly related to the event. They have seen how their ways of life have been deemed illegal or, in the case of the Methodist Church refugees, that they have simply become “bothersome”. This is the other side of the World Cup, featuring people with precious little to celebrate, even if their country makes it to the final and hoists the prized cup.

We have kept our programme aiding refugees and South Africa’s homeless running for over six years now, and not only have we never had any problems, but the government has shown us a good deal of support”, continues Verryn. Yet with the World Cup approaching, the situation began to change. “Their argument is that they’re trying to decrease insecurity, but are they trying to tell us that all poor people are criminals ?”, he asks. “What they’re really trying to do is hide the poverty, sweep it under the rug like dust. They don’t want the world to see the real South Africa”.

In recent weeks, a series of violent evictions have taken place in the centre of Johannesburg, where thousands of immigrants live in blocks of squatter apartments. It seems that Verryn’s fears were not, regrettably, unfounded.

A living market

Durban, situated some 600 kilometres to the southeast of Johannesburg, is the largest port in east Africa and a stronghold for the country’s resident Indian community. It is a modern city, with a dynamic, flourishing economy. Its beaches are heralded by surfing lovers the world over. As with the majority of the country’s grand metropolises, in the wake of apartheid’s demise, the urban centre was taken over by the black community, who came looking for work wherever they could find it.

This is the home of the Early Morning Market, the largest traditional market in this part of the continent. Here you can purchase everything from locally grown fruit and vegetables to plastic products made in China, pirated CDs and films, a good meal or herbs needed to prepare folk remedies. And everything for a price even the poorest can afford. While you will not find it recommended in any tourist guidebook (in South Africa, anything that smells African is quickly associated with being dangerous), a market stroll is a joy for the senses, a true master class on local culture. The market is a veritable incessant ant’s nest, spilling into adjacent streets in a seemingly incontrollable flow.

Most importantly, the Early Morning Market represents the place of employment for somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 people, most of whom would have great difficulty finding work elsewhere. “You cannot underestimate the market’s importance”, assures Richard Dobson, Coordinator of the NGO Asiye Etafuleni, “because most of the income that the women who work there earn is spent in the townships [the neighbourhoods in which the black community was forced to live during apartheid] where they live, thus giving a serious boost to the economy of a large part of the population with fewer resources”.

Yet the market, situated in the centre of the city, next to the central train and bus stations, is too strategic a locale to leave in the hands of the poor. Or at least this is what the directors of Isolenu must have thought. This powerful investment group presented city hall with a proposal to create a modern shopping centre to “dignify” the area, evidently with the thousands of prospective tourists in mind. Obed Mlaba, the Mayor of Durban, announced that they could not “pass up an opportunity that implied a 400 million Rand (40 million Euros) investment”. According to Harry Ramla, President of the Early Morning Market Vendors’ Association, all this is but a pretence to “turn this fabulous space over to a fistful of large companies, even if it means losing thousands of jobs and destroying the century-old building”, in reference to the fish market built in 1911, which forms the market’s central nucleus and has been deemed a place of cultural interest.

The World Cup has become a formidable excuse to impose development plans that spell disastrous consequences for those most vulnerable”, explains Pat Horn, Coordinator of StreetNet, an international alliance of street vendors, “and privatise the centre of major cities to benefit a globalised economy that excludes the majority of these humble individuals. They promised us development, but instead they are giving us greater marginalisation and an elitist, homogenised urban centre, akin to all other metropolises on the planet”.

Zero Evictions

On the continent’s southernmost tip sits Cape Town, the Rainbow Nation’s “white” bastion. It is the only major district and province not to be governed by the African National Congress, but by the Democratic Alliance (DA), torchbearers of the moderate anti-apartheid parties, which today collects the votes of the white minority.

Cape Town is also a place of pilgrimage for the international jet-set crowd, who are routinely seen frequenting its luxury restaurants or most exclusive boutiques. For example, Victoria Beckham has rented a spacious apartment and swimming pool for the World Cup, which rests spectacularly atop a cliff, overlooking the sea.

However, it also plays host to the country’s worst “informal settlements”, a local euphemism that denotes shanty towns. We are talking about an authentic ring of poverty, violence and desperation that literally encircles the formal city. These neighbourhoods are not equipped with sewer systems, running water or electricity that does not come from illegally connecting cables to high-voltage towers. Mere kilometres from the former Spice Girl’s pool, it is impossible to find a flushing toilet.

This siege has fanned out so far that in order to construct Green Point, the über modern, sea-front stadium, with seating for some 70,000 spectators, built especially for the World Cup for a cost of 44 million Euros, hundreds of residents were forced to leave their homes. And the former inhabitants of Green Point are not the only ones affected.

Evictions have multiplied in recent years”, explains Tshawe, the community leader of Joe Slovo, one of these so-called “settlements” named in honour of the famous South African communist leader, “partly due to an increase in land prices, and partly because the city government doesn’t want us so close to the centre, where the tourists might see us”. The Anti-Eviction Campaign, a local alliance that coordinates affected communities, places the number of people forcibly removed from the homes since 2000, the year the organisation was founded, in the “tens of thousands”. In the case of Joe Slovo, the “problem” lies in its proximity to the highway, consequently re-valuing the terrain upon which their shacks were built. “But we didn’t settle here out of coincidence. If we leave and go somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, how are we supposed to get to work ?”, asks Tshawe.

Three tales of resistance

While the former leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle are today directing the World Cup and a good number of the projects that hinder the lives of South Africa’s poorest, the fact is that the culture of resistance generated by that conflict remains profoundly engrained in the collective conscience. For now, just days prior to the inaugural game’s opening whistle, the Johannesburg Church refugees, the market vendors in Durban and the residents of Joe Slovo are yet to be removed and continue their vehement opposition to plans that, in the name of development, will exacerbate their already difficult lives.

With old songs from the anti-apartheid struggle resounding, the Early Morning traders shut down their market and burned tyres, prompting the investing company, upon realising that it would be impossible to open the shopping centre in time for the World Cup, to throw in the towel. For the meantime, at least.

Bishop Paul Verryn is also optimistic. “In January 2009, police forces attempted to raid the church and detain 1,500 people. Only pressure from the international media helped stop them in their tracks. Today, with more news coverage than ever, they wouldn’t dare take similar actions again”.

Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an association allied with the governing African National Congress, warned that a general strike during the World Cup would be a possibility, if the government seized upon this euphoric moment to apply certain unpopular measures, such as a draconian hike in electricity rates. “We are Bafana’s [the national football team] biggest fans ; we support the World Cup. But we are not willing to take it in exchange for jobs. We would rather see our people taken care of than the World Cup”. A few days before kick-off, a hard-line railway-workers strike threatens to paralyse the country. “You can’t ask the workers to place their fight on hold just because of the World Cup”, Vavi fires back.

For the time being, the government has responded by prohibiting all nationwide demonstrations between June 1 and July 15. This measure may signal the government’s degree of desperation ; a government in permanent conflict between its roots amidst the people and social struggle and a desire to be accepted as a “trustworthy ally” in western circles, between its genuine respect for democracy and pressure to appear peaceful and tranquil to the outside world.

South Africa is today the world’s second leading country in terms of protests per capita. An extensive network of social movements, trade unions and community-based associations breathe life into the promise that with the end of segregation, everyone’s life would improve. In this sense, the World Cup could prove a timely opportunity to execute elitist development plans. However, it could also provide a great opportunity for the entire world to see the South African people’s power of resistance.

A neoliberal World Cup ?

This is a country where staggering wealth and poverty stand side by side. The World Cup, far from helping this situation, is just putting a magnifying glass on every blemish of this post-apartheid nation”. This quote, contrary to what it might seem, was not voiced by some social activist or academic Marxist, but by Dave Zirin, one of the United States’ most famous sports journalists. Yet the fact remains that South Africa, as of this past year, is the world’s most unequal country. The stark contrast between five-star hotels and sprawling cardboard and tin shanty towns will not be lost on visitors with even the slightest amount of curiosity. With the sporting event drawing nearer, the most important the continent has ever held, there has been an upswing in the number of voices condemning the tournament for further aggravating this inequality, as opposed to, as the government promised, developing the country and helping the people out of poverty.

According to data provided by Pravin Gordhan, the South African Minister of the Economy, of the 2.5% growth in GDP calculated for 2010, 0.5 will be directly related to organising the World Cup. However, this stretch comes thanks to a colossal public investment, needed for what is already considered the most expensive World Cup of all time. Over recent years, the entire country has been “tidied up” and today boasts completely remodelled, or even brand new, roads, airports, stadiums and urban centres.

The problem is that a large part of the public budget has been mortgaged in infrastructures that, in the best case scenario, reinforce the neoliberal model for development, instead of focusing on a social and sustainable solution”, sums up University of Kwa Zulu Natal Professor of Economics, Patrick Bond. “In the worst case, these installations are in fact completely useless, like the stadiums, for example, which altogether cost some 3,000 million Rands [300 million Euros]. And this money comes from funds allotted for potable water, social housing, health care and education”.

Naturally, not even one agrees. In fact, the World Cup has generated a great deal of national backing outside of the people who directly suffer its negative effects, whereby the poorer the people, the stronger the support. In these circles, critiques are taken as an attack on Africa’s capacity to organise the event. Said critiques are often raised by the white minority, in permanent opposition to the actions of the black majority’s government. Regrettably, this logic of “us” versus “them” is alive and well 20 years after Mandela’s release. And what’s more, a large number of people are seeking, even still, to attain personal profit from the deluge of millions promised to rain down on the country in upcoming weeks.

Obviously, the World Cup is not going to substantially change the people’s lives, and I think that presenting it in this manner was a mistake”, argues Yunus Ballim, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Wits, the country’s largest. “But we have to acknowledge that it presents a wonderful opportunity to kick-start social projects and work with the communities. I feel like the University has taken advantage in this sense, collaborating with our guests from the Dutch national team, and it has worked out well. The World Cup won’t bring in one cent, but it will bring in infrastructure and training for the future”.

Yet what will happen when it becomes clear that the expectations lumped upon this event, and clearly encouraged by the government, are not met ? “The level of frustration will be high, and we could see a repeat of serious incidents, like the xenophobic attacks of two years ago”, acknowledges Ballim.

Dennis Brutus, one of South Africa’s most radical voices, and one of its national sports heroes, particularly remembered for organising a non-racial sports movement at the height of apartheid, acknowledged, in an interview just prior to his death, that people have been fooled by the World Cup. “So much money, enormous stadiums”, he lamented. “If what they wanted was to help sport they could have built school fields”.

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