Behind the euphoria, the real class divisions

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In the World Cup opening ceremony at Soccer City, Johannesburg, five fighter jets flew over, suitable symbols of South Africa's military and economic strength in relation to the rest of the continent. Because of traffic snarl-ups many missed the beginning of the opening match - demonstrating that, despite extensive pre-tournament investment, getting from A to B can still be a serious headache. And if you were to look at the spectators in the seats (and the 184 suites) you would have seen only fans from abroad or those South Africans rich enough to be able to afford tickets. For the majority of people in South Africa the World Cup will be just something seen on TV, if at all, in a country where there are fewer than 120 TVs per 1000 people, where literally millions don't even have electricity, while the rich have generators in case of power cuts.

Before the World Cup there was all the usual hype about how it would benefit the country, just as with every Olympics. Yet, for all the more than six billion dollars worth of investment in stadiums, roads, airports and other projects, there has been very little that will benefit the vast majority of the population, and a lot of expensive white elephants that will start gathering dust from the day after the World Cup Final. One of the priorities of the government has been to strengthen the repressive apparatus, increasing police numbers, getting dozens of new helicopters, a hundred new BMW police cars, and more water cannon. During June/July there will be 41,000 police involved in ‘security' and 56 special courts available countrywide.

Maybe 150,000 jobs were temporarily created in World Cup related projects, but, with 40% unemployment, 70% living below the official poverty line, hundreds of thousands homeless and millions more in shacks without basic services, a widespread lack of clean or running water, sanitation (that means toilets mostly), decent roads or reliable transport, the wealth of South Africa remains concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. It might be a cliché, but it's true to say that, under the ANC government, South Africa has one of the greatest disparities between rich and poor in the world, one of the most obvious examples of this class-divided capitalist society.

In the preparations for the World Cup hundreds of thousands of poor people were moved from their homes to make way for stadiums. The forced removals of black people by the state is reminiscent of the days of apartheid. It is not in fact unique to South Africa as it is estimated that more than 2 million people have been displaced by Olympic projects during the last 20 years. Something distinctive about one of the South African sites was that two schools were bulldozed to make way for the Nelspruit stadium, a decision that involved extensive corruption and was the subject of sustained protest.

For those shifted from their homes there has been little re-housing, with people ending up at places like Blikkiesdorp ("tin can city") 30 miles from Cape Town, a huge shanty town of corrugated iron shacks, a basic dumping ground for the poor, one of a number that the local press have called "concentration camps". In the Cape Town area there are 300,000 awaiting housing, only some of them ‘lucky' enough to be in Blikkiesdorp, or the "Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area" as it is officially known.

The working class at the point of production has not been quiet in the build up to the World Cup. There were many strikes on the sites during their construction for 2010, most of them not sanctioned by any union. The most dramatic of these involved 70,000 workers in a week-long strike last July. One of the most important recent expressions of the class struggle occurred at that time, when there were strikes in the chemical, pharmaceutical and paper industries as well as by 150,000 municipal workers. These had been preceded by massive protests in the townships against the lack of basic services. A government minister said that there would be an end to shanty towns by 2014. There is a greater chance of New Zealand winning the World Cup. More recently there have been strikes by transport, power and workers in other industries. It's also interesting to note that last August in Pretoria there were running battles between soldiers protesting about pay and conditions, and armed riot police - an illustration that military regimentation goes only so far with workers in uniform.

The South African ruling class, with the ANC at its heart, hopes that the World Cup will bring the country good publicity. "South Africa wants to present itself as a top tourist destination to World Cup fans, and ridding the streets of homeless people seems to be an important part of the preparations in many of the nine cities hosting matches. In Johannesburg, one official bluntly acknowledged the city's intention to chase away homeless people, saying, ‘You have to clean your house before you have guests'"( They might briefly be able to hide the homeless, but ultimately nothing can obscure the class divisions in post-apartheid South Africa. 

Car 12/6/10


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