SACSIS: FIFA Will Not Redeem us from the Burdens of History

This article was also published in the Cape Times.

FIFA Will Not Redeem us from the Burdens of History

Date posted: 15 December 2009
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The 2010 World Cup is being sold to us as a moment of collective redemption. Patriotism and theological sentiments are being mobilised to persuade us that a moment of millennial grace is at hand. Africa’s time, we are told, has come.

Back in 2007 Thabo Mbeki heralded the World Cup as “an event that will send ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo – an event that will create social and economic opportunities throughout Africa. We want to ensure that one day, historians will reflect upon the 2010 FIFA World Cup as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely turned the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict.”

This hubris is entirely fantastical. Even if things go as well as they possibly can next June the World Cup is certainly not going to undo the imbalances in power relations that have produced a global economy in which the Niger Delta is devastated for oil and the Eastern Congo for coltan while the only real debate amongst local elites is whether to bow down to the old financiers in London and New York or their new rivals in Beijing.

In reality mega-events like major international sporting contests, beauty contests and summits of various kinds generally pull massive public subsidies into private profits. The promoters of these events invariably offer hugely inflated and at times clearly fabricated projections of their economic benefits to persuade national and municipal governments to invest public money in private accumulation. FIFA itself has been accused of serious corruption and the allocation of tenders in these sorts of events is often distorted by local power politics.

Independent academic studies overwhelmingly indicate that actual economic benefits tend to be a small fraction of those promised. Cities around the world have been left with massive debts and white elephant stadia. It took Montreal 30 years to pay off the debt incurred by hosting the Olympic Games. FIFA is particularly ruthless in the way that it seeks to ring-fence a good portion of the profits that are to be made for itself with its branding rules, zones in which independent trading is excluded and all the rest.

The number of visitors that can be realistically expected to attend these events is also routinely inflated. When South Korea hosted the World Cup in 2002 many people did visit the country for the event but around the same number stayed away to avoid it with a result that the number of foreign visitors during the event, 460,000, was identical to the number in the same period in the previous year.

Mega-events also give local elites an opportunity to reorganise cities in their own interests. There is often a spatial reorganisation that physically expels the poor to the urban periphery. One report estimates that the Olympic Games has displaced more than two million people in the last twenty years. The same report estimates that 720,000 people were evicted in the Seoul Olympics, 30,000 displaced in Atlanta and over a million in Beijing. City managers are also able to implement new security regimes including new forms of surveillance and aggressive harassment of poor people, minorities, street traders and sex workers. In Atlanta more than 9,000 people, mostly African-Americans, were arrested in an Olympic campaign to ‘clean the streets’.

Millennial fervour can inspire self-sacrifice in the interests of the greater good or simple destruction, of the self or others, but either way it inevitably has an authoritarian shadow. To be against a new dawn is to be seen to be a threat to society as a whole. With all the hubris that accompanies these events, as promoters desperately try to rationalise their public and social costs, it’s also typical for basic civil liberties to be rolled back and for political dissent to be treated with a degree of repression that would not ordinarily be accepted. FIFA itself actively seeks to embed journalists within its corporate logic by offering accreditation at the price of giving up professional autonomy.

But of course mega-events are not just about the money. There has, since the Berlin Olympics in 1936, been an opportunity for cities and countries to stake a particular place in the world. The slogan ‘Celebrating Africa’s Humanity’ presents the 2010 World Cup as an opportunity for Africa as a whole to move beyond the racist stereotypes that present the continent as a basket case and its people as less than human. But this is a response to racism that seeks to escape racism by pandering to the interests that were made rich by racism as it made most of our people poor.

We’ve been conned many times before by embedded ‘experts’ who’ve told us that casinos, five star hotels, grand prix and theme parks are the way to build a decent economy and left us paying the interests on the public debts incurred to subsidise private profit taking. The reality is that we’ve been conned once again and that we’ll be left with public debts and stadia that that we just can’t afford.

We’ve already witnessed a brutal crack down on shack dwellers, street traders, homeless people, street children, sex workers and the organised poor that is likely to get worse as evictions escalate and the police do more shooting to kill in the run up to the World Cup.

We could have mobilised all the money and political will that’s been invested in the World Cup in houses, schools, libraries, parks, crèches, hospitals and sports facilities in every part of every city. We could have invested our aspirations for dignity in the well being of all of our people instead of the demands of FIFA, foreign investors, the foreign media and all the new names that we give to the white gaze.

But we didn’t and the price that we pay will be that as our national elite becomes more integrated into the global elite the poor will continue their steady descent from citizens with claims on society, to consumers with no money to consume, to a problem to be managed by development experts, to the dangerous classes that need to be beaten into submission and contained in camps on the outskirts of our cities.

In 2003 Thabo Mbeki spoke of the Haitian Revolution of 1804 as “a revolution of African slaves against slavery and the dehumanisation of Africans…They made enormous sacrifices to give universal meaning to the prescriptions of the American Revolution that ‘all men are born equal’…The sacrifices they made established their place in human history.” This is a vision that grounds the attainment of the universal in the dignity of ordinary people. This is the legacy that we have abandoned in our rush to satiate FIFA and all that it represents as we create an empty spectacle for the world at the expense, the direct expense, of meeting the urgent needs of our own people.