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Can South Africa Fight Poverty with Soccer?

In 2004 most Africans celebrated when South Africa won the bid to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup.  The country made history by being the first to host the world’s biggest sporting event on African soil.

I am sure on Wednesday night most Africans must have been in tears as South Africa’s national team was thrashed 3-0 by Uruguay.  South Africa is poised to make unwelcome history by being the first host country in the history of the tournament to exit during the group stages.  It will now require a miracle of biblical proportions for South Africa to remain in contention.  It will have to beat France, a more formidable opponent than it has faced hitherto.

One should not read too much in Bafana Bafana’s unimpressive showing in the World Cup thus far—this is soccer, the ball is round so anything is possible.  However there is no denying that the prospect of a successful Bafana Bafana campaign has galvanized a great sense of national pride and identity in the host nation.  The big question is whether the crumbling of the dream that has captivated, inspired, and exercised the nation’s imagination in such a significant way will ignite frustration in economic, social, and political sectors.

Forty-three percent of South Africans live below the poverty line.  Rough estimates are that the country spent $4.3 billion on the SWC.  This week’s Newsweek projected that the total economic impact the World Cup will have on South Africa’s economy is $12 billion, $4.5 billion of which will be generated this year.  The event is expected to boost the country’s GDP by 0.54% and contribute to 280,000 jobs in 2010.  These are impressive numbers, but where the rubber meets the road is whether this translates into improved livelihoods for the poverty stricken 43% of the population.

There is a high level of dissatisfaction with service delivery generally in South Africa.  There is every likelihood that if no tangible benefits are seen in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup there will be increased social upheaval on the back of a perception that the event was a misdirected investment.  This perception will be fueled by disillusionment driven by the dismal performance of the national team that is increasingly becoming a reality.  In the build-up to the SWC, word on the street has been that there is likely to be an eruption of xenophobic attacks against foreigners like we saw in 2008.  This will mainly be precipitated by the end of the World Cup-related job boom.  The government has denied this, but again the government was in denial for a long time during the 2008 xenophobic attacks.

About 3000 protesters took to the streets in Durban on Wednesday before the Switzerland v Spain match, protesting that “if there is money for stadiums there should be no homeless people living in shacks.”  The protest was joined by scores of security guards who had earlier clashed with police over a World Cup wage dispute with a private contractor.  The wage dispute and protests saw the South African police taking over security responsibilities at four stadiums.

Organizationally South Africa should be commended on the manner it has run the tournament.  There are also other benefits that have accrued to the country such as accelerated infrastructure development in the form of roads and rail.  These gains can easily be dimmed if it turns out that the majority of citizens feel that they have come out worse off from the World Cup and if related corruption cases among the ruling elite emerge in the event's aftermath.

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