South Africa’s World Cup mission

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South Africa is run from a fine old colonial building in Cape Town called De Tuynhuys. For decades, De Tuynhuys was inhabited by white men in dark suits. Now Essop Pahad, right-hand man to President Thabo Mbeki, sits at his desk sporting a bright pink shirt, and marvels: “My God, we’re organising a World Cup. And we will organise, I promise you, a world-class World Cup.” Did the task make him nervous? “Oh yes. Nervous I am, but confident.”

South Africa’s World Cup effectively kicks off on November 25, with the draw for the qualifying groups in Durban. In interviews with members of the South African establishment, I have tried to find out what the tournament means to them. Recent World Cups have each had one overriding mission. In 2002, Japan and South Korea wanted to import football. In 2006, Germany wanted to show the world it wasn’t such a bad place. What will 2010 mean?

It won’t be about “nation-building”, in the way that South Africa’s rugby World Cup of 1995 was. Apartheid had then just fallen, and South Africa needed to meld its many ethnic groups into a “rainbow nation”. “Hostility amongst South Africans in 1995 was higher than today,” Bruce Koloane, the country’s ambassador to Spain, told me. Now there are bigger priorities.

Initially, this World Cup’s mission was to make South Africa rich. But those hopes are dimming. Fifa, which controls the World Cup, won’t let bed-and-breakfasts fly the tournament’s logo, or let unlicensed hawkers flog boerewors sausage at stadiums. “Some South Africans are uneasy because the economic growth prospects for 2010 seem curtailed by the stringent regulations,” says Koloane. Many South Africans still believe the visitors and new infrastructure will make them richer but most sports economists who have studied previous tournaments doubt it.

However, for South Africa’s establishment, the World Cup has another rationale: to show that the country is “world-class”.

The phrase “world-class” is heavily used in this country. Both the mostly black political class and the mostly white business class instinctively measure themselves against other countries. Many of the politicos lived abroad in exile, and the business people always regarded Britons and Americans as their peer group. Motivated partly by centuries of racism, South Africans now want to show that an African country can produce a “world-class” World Cup.

The model is Germany. Two nights before last year’s World Cup final, Franz Beckenbauer, the cup’s organiser, bestrode the domed lobby of Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, getting kissed, touched and fêted by visiting VIPs. Beckenbauer’s World Cup had been world-class: perfect stadiums, trains, fans and volunteers. Only the football was dull.

Sprinkled around the Adlon’s lobby that night were South Africans: the one-armed judge Albie Sachs, musicians, World Cup profiteers. They could see Germany had given them a scary legacy. In 2006, the World Cup grew into the planet’s most public test of logistics.

Danny Jordaan, organiser of South Africa’s World Cup, has absorbed what you might call the “organiser’s history” of the tournament. “The beginning of the process of change for the World Cup started in 1990,” he told me in Johannesburg recently, over his second working breakfast of the morning. The Berlin wall had fallen, globalisation accelerated, and new countries were joining Fifa. Within a few years, the body went from 97 members to 200. Then, in 1994, the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams. Suddenly it was a World Cup, rather than a European-Latin American jamboree.

“Post-1990, virtually every World Cup was sold out,” Jordaan continued. Fees for television rights shot up, as each successive tournament became the biggest media event in history, judged by numbers of televised hours. Jordaan watched it all change, as he worked at every tournament since 1994.

He said: “Germany raised the bar further as part of the process that started in 1990. We are the first developing country to host the World Cup in the post-1990 period. Even if there were developing countries hosting the World Cup in 1930 and 1986, the post-1990 period is different.”

The western media are covering South Africa’s task by remarking on its crime (fair enough), saying the stadiums won’t be ready (unfair), and speculating that the World Cup might be moved (nonsense).

These stories reinforce South Africa’s desire to prove that it is competent; a full, adult member of the world. Possibly no previous World Cup has mattered as much to its host. The tournament is meant to be the last stop on Nelson Mandela’s “long walk to freedom”. That is why hardly any South African opposes hosting the event. To oppose that would be to oppose the new South Africa.

Nic Borain, a political risk analyst in Cape Town, phrases it best: “The World Cup has come to represent a proxy for South Africa’s future.” If the World Cup is world-class, it would somehow show that the new South Africa – and perhaps even all Africa – can hack it. Borain says: “We worry we can’t do it. We represent Africa, we come after Germany, which in our minds represents the epitome of white on-timeness. We have invested the World Cup as an omen of our future.”

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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