The World Cup is no economic boon for South Africa

Image of Simon Kuper

It remains the most stirring South African sporting moment. The country’s Springbok rugby team had just won the World Cup of 1995, uniting South Africans of all colours. Nelson Mandela walked on to the pitch wearing a Springbok jersey, shook hands with South Africa’s captain Francois Pienaar and said, “Francois, thank you very much for what you have done for our country.” Pienaar famously replied: “No, Mr President, thank you for what you have done for our country.”

John Carlin, who recounts the handshake in his book Playing The Enemy, believes this was “possibly the happiest moment of Mandela’s life”. The old man had created a nation. That moment is the focus of Clint Eastwood’s movie Invictus, based on Carlin’s book and due out on December 11.

It is worth recalling that handshake ahead of Friday’s draw for the soccer World Cup in South Africa. It helps clarify what the story of the coming tournament will and will not be. The rugby World Cup was about creating a united South Africa where under apartheid there had been only separate colours. By contrast, the story of next year’s event is, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Each big sports tournament tells the world a story that transcends sport. The Tokyo Olympics of 1964, for example, dramatised Japan’s entry into the rich democratic world. The German World Cup of 2006 was about how the world – and even Germans – learned to love Germany.

When bidding began, most foreigners could only imagine a South African World Cup in 2010 as a re-enactment of the drama of nation-building. And Mr Mandela jetted around the world campaigning on that basis. By the time the country was awarded the World Cup, in 2004, the story of 1995 had lost relevance in South Africa. Under Thabo Mbeki, Mr Mandela’s successor as president, the domestic debate had shifted to economics: how to develop the country. “You had all these grand gestures from Mandela, and then Mbeki comes in as the can-do technocrat who’s going to make things work,” says Mark Gevisser, Mr Mbeki’s biographer. For South Africans, the World Cup had become an economic story.

This has meant showing that South Africa can pull off a “world-class” World Cup. The term has a resonance in South Africa, particularly for Mr Mbeki. Officials are always using it. “People will see we are African, and we are world-class,” says Danny Jordaan, the World Cup’s chief organiser. No expense has been spared. Cape Town does not need a world-class football stadium, but it has one now, at four times the original envisaged cost.

A second strand of the economic story is that the World Cup will supposedly enrich the nation’s poor. More than a third of South Africans live on less than $2 a day. In theory, money from the World Cup will trickle down to them. Jacob Zuma, the new president, whose promise is economic uplift, favours this story.

Unfortunately, the economic story is wrong. Barely any academic economist believes that countries get richer from hosting sports tournaments. South Africa has been told this: when its finance ministry flew in three eminent foreign sports economists for a workshop, they argued that, at best, the World Cup would not reduce South Africa’s economic growth. The country expects 500,000 foreign visitors for the tournament, or fewer than it receives in an average month. Much of the money to be made from them will not be made by South Africans. Few township-dwellers will even get near the World Cup: Cape Town is struggling to afford a bus link from the townships to its world-class stadium. In Rudi Boon’s documentary Trade Mark 2010, he shows traders in Cape Town being told that Fifa won’t let them use even the number “2010” or the words “World Cup” on goods they sell during the tournament.

The handshake of 1995 did not fill people’s bellies. Nonetheless, it may stay with South Africa for longer than any product of 2010.

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