Feel it. It is here!

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Here we are publishing a letter from a sympathiser in South Africa which gives his impressions of the massive hype surrounding the World Cup

Feel it. It is here!

So goes the catch-phase/cum call to party and spend beamed to every South African TV for the past three weeks. The message is clear - enjoy this celebration of football and show the world what a capable, multicultural, and business-friendly butterfly the old, divided apartheid caterpillar has become. Nevermind if the metaphor doesn't really work (since when was a caterpillar divided?), this insect metaphor was employed by none other than Desmond Tutu himself at the Cup's opening ceremony.

 For my money, from a footballing perspective, this has been a great World Cup. After a lack-lustre and stale beginning featuring a kill-yourself-with-a-rusty-croissant 0-0 draw between Uruguay and France (more on this below), we've seen the dwarf collective (i.e. Messi and Maradona aka Argentina) play some exquisite stuff, Brazil dance to an intriguing new tune (a catchy fusion of Samba and Nazi marching band) and England get their just desserts. By the way, some people might blame the lack of FIFA qualified coaches in England, or the overly busy Premier League season, or the advancing years of key players. I prefer to disregard most of my anthropological training and blame it on the mainstream of English psychology, which, brutalized and bored by two centuries of industrialization and manically tidy front rooms, is left with brute force and conformity (which paradoxically is manifested as individualistic selfishness) as its only means of expression. I'm sure some nit-picking naysayer will find holes in this sophisticated theory.

To get back to my main point. The World Cup South Africa 2010, is, beyond the playing field, in almost every aspect a horrific spectre of contemporary capitalism kitted and booted with the FIFA stamp of approval. I was lucky and unfortunate enough to go to the above -mentioned Uruguay-France draw. The Greenpoint Stadium itself is spectacular - an exquisite example of an industrial kind of craftsmanship put together by workers earning what would be considered a pittance in the ‘developed' world.  And this in a city where supermarket food prices often outstrip those of London and Paris.

Looking around the stadium, I saw advertisements for all the key FIFA-approved companies: Budweiser (whose beer Monty Python would have said was like ‘having sex in a canoe'), McDonalds, Visa, Coca-Cola...the usual suspects. Even the grounds of ‘ethical business' which would benefit ‘Africa' upon which this World Cup was supposedly built has in quick measure proven to be a bold-faced lie. Of course, even if local/African companies were given advertising space in the stadium, this would have only benefited a certain bourgeois minority. But the way in which international gigantabusiness, led by FIFA, has so blatantly gone back on its promise of an African World Cup, for the benefit of ‘the people', just shows up the real purpose of the Cup and capitalism in general: to make lots and lots of money for a small number of people.  

Shuffling out of the stadium, rusty croissant in hand, I noticed the huge number of police shepherding the Budweiser-filled crowds. Putting this down to the usual high security of South African life, I thought nothing more of it. Later on, speaking with people who work within the stadium and reading The Mail and Guardian I discovered that the overload of Old Bill was down to a security guard strike. Having been promised R300-400 for a 12 hour shift, security guards had refused to work for their actual pay of R190 for the same shift. The Local Organising Committee and FIFA share joint responsibility for stadium security and yet neither were willing to fork out a decent wage for those people taking the job on. In the end, the South African state has had to pay for police to take over the security guards' positions, at rates double the R300-400 originally promised. Given that FIFA will make something like $2,500,000,000 from the World Cup, security guards are justifiably aggrieved. However, incidents like this should not really be seen as ‘unfair play' on the behalf of FIFA, as suggested by some quarters (see for example http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/hosts-see-red-as-world-cup-bill-soars-ndash-but-fifa-is-16317bn-in-black-1994958.html). Rather, this is simply business as usual in a country and a world which is supremely unequal and by definition unfair. If the rules of the game itself favour the rich and powerful, FIFA is simply playing the game well. This is the same game that the many many South African businesses which exploit cheap black and ‘coloured' labour thrive upon.

I believe people are aghast (though probably not surprised) by the huge financial loss the World Cup is turning out to be. The by now common criticisms of FIFA are intermingled with a national mood of patriotism and African pride which is sweeping the nation. These latter phenomena do not come in for criticism. South African flags adorn bars, restaurants, cars, billboards. This may be fine and well for those of us lucky enough to hang out in fancy bars, side-by-side with our equally well-fed and drunk German friends. Such patriotic fervour takes on a different complexion in those parts of the country where people compete for homes, for extremely low-paying jobs, and where xenophobic violence saw some 40,000 people chased out of their homes just two years ago. In these places, rumours abound that when the World Cup is over, foreigners - poor Zimbabweans, Mozambiquans (i.e. probably not those expounding the harmlessness of patriotism in Cape Town's chic cafes) will be kicked out once and for all. Whether these rumours express real intentions, and whether or not these intentions turn into actions, it is clear that patriotism serves more than to sell South African-made products. The most exploited of society identify themselves with the nation, an imagined unifying force which gives them rights to homes, to benefits, to work above those who happen to have been born outside of the borders which history and politics have arbitrarily drawn up. Of course, the reality is far more complicated - when the attacks of 2008 were still happening, many township residents came out to publicly denounce the xenophobia, to welcome their neighbours back to their homes.

To return to where I started, the rainbow nation is, for the majority of the population, anything but a beautiful, multicultural butterfly. I am not a pessimist - I don't think that humanity can ever be entirely lost or defeated, and I do think that a world human community is possible. I think that South Africa is a beautiful, fucked up place and that people should be angry at multi million and billionaire capitalists and national ruling elites selling them division, exploitation, and poverty dressed up as unity, opportunity and wealth.

JWS 1/7/10

See also :