Did South Africa win the World Cup?

It was a peculiarly South African exercise. On a beautiful Johannesburg winter’s morning, five smart South Africans gathered around a kitchen table and, over coffee and pastries, talked about how the World Cup had changed their country.

We had been wrestling with many questions about the tournament and South Africa. All five were fiercely independent; no one had come to the table to spout the official view. First of all, was it worth it? After all, the World Cup has cost the country a lot of money. The bill for stadiums, roads and related transport infrastructure has exceeded R30bn (£2.56bn). And was the World Cup worth it in a more intangible sense? There has been a lot of talk of a new spirit of social cohesion in the “rainbow nation”. Even before the first ball or opposing player was kicked, Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, and Danny Jordaan, who runs the local organising committee, had drawn comparisons with other “rainbow moments” of national togetherness. ­Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in 1990, for instance, or the day in 1995 when President Mandela handed the Rugby World Cup to the captain of the Springboks, a team beloved of Afrikaners.

But is talk of togetherness just propaganda in a country with some very tangible needs? Shouldn’t those billions have been used to train people for jobs, or to provide impoverished schools with libraries, or even just with teachers who actually teach? We wanted South African answers, but those are hard to find. This is a peculiarly unknowable country. In a horrible way, apartheid succeeded. Starting from the absurd premise that “races” are different, the system ended up creating a country where people of different colours often are different from each other.

Most white, black, “coloured” and Indian South Africans still live within their own colour and truth. Driving around Johannesburg, it’s sometimes useful to know that apartheid has been abolished, because otherwise you might not notice it immediately. The northern suburbs remain overwhelmingly white. Alexandra township, five miles away, is black. It’s as if ­Kensington in London and a Lagos shantytown sat side by side, separated only by a highway. There are several different South Africas, and the ­people in them speak 11 official languages. Many South Africans are precluded by lack of education, or lack of English, from joining in the national debate. Perhaps 40 per cent of black people here still live in poverty, as bad, in many ways, as that which existed under apartheid.

And yet there is a vibrant South African debate, and we heard it at our round table. One reason why South Africa will surely never end up like neighbouring Zimbabwe is that society here is forever arguing. The writer Njabulo ­Ndebele got irritated months ago by the government’s boasts about “world-class” stadiums. What makes South Africa “world-class”, he said, wasn’t swish stadiums or a good football team. South Africa isn’t ­Germany. What makes South Africa world-class, Ndebele argued, is that it talked its way out of civil war into freedom and has kept talking ever since. There’s a constant national discussion in which everyone disagrees with everyone else, but in which everyone is respectfully heard. As Sanza Tshabalala, one of our guests, remarked: “I think we will always remain a talking nation.”

Our five South Africans are of different colours and have different personal histories, but each represents only one person. They came together not only as experts but as South Africans. They are critical of their country, yet never cynical. The Sowetan newspaper’s old slogan, “Don’t just stand there – Build the nation!” remained alive and well around our table.

A talking nation…

Five South Africans, one crucial issue: the legacy of the 2010 World Cup

FT Weekend: When you look at the World Cup, do you think: this is what South Africa could be? People felt united, the event was well-organised, the visitors were mostly safe. Were there things that South Africa did that could become part of a post-World Cup strategy – the 41,000 extra police, for instance?

William Gumede: We need a legacy, and a positive legacy is just the idea that we can, within a constrained period, actually pull things off – which hasn’t been the case before.

The public service is a key tool to make development happen. And in our case, there are inefficiencies, corruption and so on: the public service isn’t working. The World Cup local committee actually circumvented the public service. Here, I think, there’s a model for going forward. The local committee took the best out of the public service, the best out of business, put them all together and gave them an open phone line to the president. If there’s any obstacle, the president phones and says: “Create it now.”

It had a target: the World Cup must happen; if it doesn’t, we embarrass this country. That concept, I think, could be a model for us.

Mark Gevisser: You’ve got to have a compelling deadline, but you’ve also got to have a “slow and steady wins the race” approach, rather than boom-bust, deadline-driven.

South Africans, perhaps because of the way we punched so much above our weight, due to the “rainbow nation”, “Madiba miracle”, have an obsession with reputation and how we look. If we look good, then we are good, so this leads to a bling approach to development. Buy the best arms material at a huge cost, whether you need it or not. Build these great stadiums and then the world will see that we’re world-class and we’ll feel world-class, rather than the slow, steady growth that would happen through something like a National Planning Commission.

FT Weekend: To outsiders, it seems baffling that South Africa put all this thought and effort into a football tournament. Why not put your energy into fighting HIV/Aids, for instance?

Ann Bernstein: There are two reasons. If you focus on the World Cup, you don’t have to face some tough political choices. The World Cup was easy. You can get lots of people who say, “This is a great idea.” Also, there are lots of opportunities for people to benefit from a World Cup, both corrupt and not corrupt.

FT Weekend: What about the tournament’s economic impact? What will remain of all this in five years’ time?

Ferial Haffajee: The Revenue Service told us that at a macroeconomic level, the impact of the World Cup was going to be completely neutral. But we have to acknowledge the economic impact of the infrastructure, how it will bring down, hopefully, in time, the transport costs of ordinary working people who spend more than half their monthly income on transport.

The Gautrain [the new train link between Johannesburg and the international airport that is scheduled to extend next year to Pretoria] is going to be great, but the bigger one for me has been new train stations and the opening up of new bus routes.

FT Weekend: But couldn’t all that public spending have been better used for South Africa for the years to come, rather than for this one month?

Ann: Well, I think that’s a naive idea. To think that if we hadn’t gone for the World Cup, which I’m not a particular advocate of, that that money would necessarily have been spent on poor people’s housing or jobs or a whole lot of other worthy objectives, is naive. Societies don’t work that way. The political elite took on this big project and focused their minds.

The legacy all depends, actually, on what happens next. Do we capitalise on the focus the world has paid to South Africa, where I think most ­people have seen a country that’s much more developed, efficient, not race riven as they were led to believe? Can we capitalise on that in terms of tourism but, more important, investment? South Africa needs the post-games strategy.

Mark: I think we need to have a perspective that there was another time in all of our living memory, in 1994, after the birth of the rainbow nation, when there was all this expectation of foreign direct investment. And it just didn’t happen and I think we need to understand why it didn’t happen and look at whether that’s systemic, before being able to be optimistic about what might happen.

William: We haven’t used the money in the optimum way. We should have started off with transport from the townships to the major cities, and ­getting that right across the country. What we also have done is create expectations that this World Cup will immediately deliver investments and jobs and so on, and so when that bubble [bursts], that is for me the ­danger-point. If you live in [an] informal settlement, you have no job, you have no proper house, you’d say, “Well, there is that World Cup stadium – if that can be done I need to have a job today and I need to have a house today, because if we can spend the money on that sort of thing…”

FT Weekend: Here’s a horrible question that underlies a lot of questions about South Africa. At this table and outside, do whites and blacks see the World Cup differently? Or are you all South Africans now?

Sanza Tshabalala: The more the African teams were going down, the more I started getting worried about our race relations. I thought, we [Africans] are not doing well otherwise and I thought we would do well in football and it would maybe do something with our pride.

I’m obsessed with race issues. South Africans should be behind African teams. Then I went to see the Argentina-Nigeria game, at Ellis Park. And I see young Indian professionals, white people, all dressed up in Lionel Messi jerseys, and the few of us [who] are supporting Nigeria – probably 2 per cent of the stadium. I sat there thinking, ‘What’s this society going to?’ Because we’re meant to be supporting an African team, aren’t we?

Ann: Why? Why should we support an African team? There isn’t a black view, nor is there a white view. What’s striking to me, going to a Soccer City game, was that you were seeing very large numbers of this emerging black lower middle class. They could afford to come to the game, they had all the right clothes and they were there. Class is more important now.

Mark: The sense I get inside these stadiums, or certainly in the Johannesburg I occupy, is that just as the middle class is deracialising in South Africa, and black and white kids are going to school together, are working together in professional environments, I think what’s happened in the World Cup takes that process one step further.

I’m haunted by an image on that same trip from Johannesburg to ­Bloemfontein, which was a group of villagers from one of those terrible hardscrabble Free State farm community villages along the freeway, in the freezing cold, in the make-do old coats that people wear in that part of the world. But behind a barbed-wire fence, obviously put up to prevent ­pedestrian accidents, incredibly, excitedly using whatever they had to cheer this convoy of German 4x4s zooming down with their flags going to ­Bloemfontein, and wanting so much to be part of this national celebration.

I haven’t spent enough time in the poor parts of the country to know how people feel there, but they’re certainly not at the matches. And, to the extent that they are partaking of this zingy cosmopolitanism, it seems to me often to be as service providers. I think so much of the negative energy that went into the [Jacob] Zuma revolution in this country was a feeling of not being invited to the victory table. A feeling of: “We should also be ­benefiting and we’re not.” I worry about that as an ongoing impulse.

William: I think expressly black people feel proud. Sorry that I’m using “black”. You can’t talk that way in a sense, but there is the element of pride: the World Cup is being put together successfully and black people ­predominantly could be seen as putting it together. Even if you don’t have a job, even if you don’t have a house, even if the new transport infrastructure is not serving you at all, there is still that sense of reverence around it, yes.

Ferial: Ours is a “Black Diamond” paper, a black middle-class paper. The subtext of the South African narrative is one of how black people can’t do it, look how they are messing up the government. And in fact, during this World Cup I see great moments of pride: we can do it. These are what I would call “Steve Biko [the murdered 1970s black-consciousness activist] moments” – moments of self-awareness and of achievement.

The City Press newspaper set out at the beginning of the World Cup to say we’re not going to do the elite World Cup. We’re going to go to the ­poorest parts of the country, Mpumulanga, Kwazulu Natal. We were sure we were going to find a story of hopeless people who couldn’t give a damn about the World Cup. In fact what we found was a very engaged community, highly excited, watching TV on big, fancy screens put up by the state. That was replicated all over the show.

Sanza: “Feel it, it is here” [the slogan for the World Cup used by SABC, South Africa’s state-owned broadcaster]. But it is really not in Yeoville [the low-income, mainly black African Johannesburg suburb where Sanza lives]. There are a lot of Africans – immigrants from other African countries – who love their teams, but they haven’t bought tickets and they don’t have family visiting. They watch it on TV. I was watching the Ghana-US game far away with some Argentinians and I rushed back to Yeoville to catch the spirit.

My moment is in Yeoville, where there is a lot of hope but there are also a lot of disappointing things about this World Cup.

FT Weekend: Was it worth it?

Sanza: Yes, [but] as a wasted opportunity. I think it was worth it for us to see that. I think we will always remain a political and a talking nation, and therefore this was worth it for us, to ponder the benefits or lack of, or to say, “It was an opportunity but we wasted it.”

William: Not that I don’t like soccer, I’m obsessed with soccer. But it was not worth it. I think we would foster a much more sustainable reconciliation between the races if we focus on development. If the black poor ­majority gets lifted up en masse, that would do much more for reconciliation.

Ferial: I think rationally and fiscally [it was] absolutely not [worth it]. But emotionally, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, for the intangible benefits for our country, and the fillip it’s given it at a difficult moment. I was really worried about 20 years of democracy. I’m not so worried any more. I’d always thought that nationhood and non-racialism were evaporating dreams, and in fact I see they can still be made tangible and real.

I don’t trust our national anxieties any longer. We exist always on the edge of anxiety, and it’s been nice. Personally [this anxiety] has had little impact on my journey, how I write, how I think about the country. I like that we protest, complain. Communities here protest all the time. I’ve learnt to see that as an asset, that will compel us, I hope, in the right direction.

Mark: It was certainly worth it for me. It’s going to change the way I work. I can feel that something has shifted, the way something shifted for me personally in the early 1990s. In terms of a ledger, of hard costs and ­benefits, I have no doubt that it wasn’t worth it. But my sense is that in terms of reputation, and in terms of international perception, it has shifted things.

I happened to be in Dublin at the beginning of the World Cup. It was absolutely wonderful to hear every single taxi driver tell me how great South Africa was, even if the South African team was crap. It’s not clear to me how deep that is, or whether, with the sort of CNN mentality, the global eye goes on to the next thing, and forgets this backwater.

FT Weekend: Speaking as a South African, what was your moment of the World Cup?

Ferial: I went to the game at Soccer City [Mexico-South Africa, the tournament’s opening match] and I realised as a country we’d come pretty far. Because a little over 16 years ago, I’d been to that stadium on two occasions. The first was when Mandela was released [in 1990] and the other was when Chris Hani [the Communist Party leader] had been assassinated [in 1993]. We sat in that awful stadium – it hadn’t been rebuilt – I was sitting right on top to catch a view of the crowd, and it really felt as if we were teetering. Our country didn’t know where it was going to. It felt as if we were on the edge of a civil war. Sixteen years later, it was a beautiful experience to be there. The game was great, but also the look of that stadium, the symbolism of it. Perhaps we are going to get through the next 20 years in fairly good shape, if we make good decisions.

William: For me, it was the first game, too. On the way, as I was driving, I could see black domestic workers in their Bafana Bafana T-shirts, white middle-class individuals with their flags and so on. I think for the first time I’ve seen black and white coming together around something. There was a positive energy on such a wide scale.

Mark: The South Africa versus France game in Bloemfontein. I’m not a flag-waver at all. I left Johannesburg in my civvies. By the time I got to Bloemfontein I was bedecked with flags, scarves, jacket.

My personal stand against reconciliation has been a refusal to sing “Die Stem” [the old apartheid anthem, some of whose lines have been integrated into the new South African anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”]. But at this Bloemfontein game I sang “Die Stem” for the first time since high school. My reason for doing so was I watched the white South Africans around me, and this is Bloemfontein, a lot of white Afrikaans Free Staters [people from Orange Free State] going to their stadium bedecked in our new national colours and wearing these colours with ease and comfort and just happiness. And I watched these Afrikaners sitting around me with tears in their eyes as they were singing, and they knew the words of “Nkosi Sikelel’ ­iAfrika” and I thought if they can sing that, I can sing “Die Stem” and it’s over. It feels like a personal healing and a national healing. The question for me is how deep it is. It’s great to feel that in a stadium. What it means in terms of a settling down into a mature national identity I don’t yet know.

Richard Lapper is the FT’s Johannesburg bureau chief. Simon Kuper is a regular contributor to the FT Weekend Magazine

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