Democracy Now!: Raj Patel on How South Africa Has Cracked Down on the Poor and the Shack Dwellers’ Movement

“Upside Down World Cup”: Raj Patel on How South Africa Has Cracked Down on the Poor and the Shack Dwellers’ Movement Ahead of the World Cup

As the 2010 World Cup opens in South Africa, Raj Patel looks at one of the most overlooked aspects of this year’s tournament: the ongoing struggle of tens of thousands of shack dwellers across the country. Over the past year, shack settlement leaders in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town have been chased from their homes by gangs, arrested, detained without hearing, and assaulted. As the World Cup begins, a shack dwellers’ movement known as Abahlali baseMjondolo is mounting what they call an “Upside Down World Cup” campaign to draw attention to their plight. [includes rush transcript]

AMY GOODMAN: Angelique Kidjo, performing before tens of thousands of people at the World Cup concert in Soweto’s Orlando Stadium in South Africa Thursday. And you can go to our website to see a full interview with Angelique that we did in Copenhagen at the climate change summit. That’s right, today is the opening day of the 2010 World Cup, the most-watched sporting event on the planet. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, once every four years, the world comes to a standstill as an estimated one billion people across the globe tune in to watch countries compete in what is known as “The Beautiful Game,” football, or soccer, as it’s called here in the United States. For four weeks, thirty-two countries compete in sixty-four matches to vie for the World Cup trophy, perhaps the most coveted prize in all of sports.

This year, the World Cup is being held in South Africa. It’s the first time in history the tournament is held on the African continent. An estimated 350,000 people are expected to visit South Africa for the competition.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, tens of thousands of people gathered in Soweto’s Orlando Stadium for a celebration concert that featured African stars Angelique Kidjo, Amadou & Mariam, Hugh Masekela, as well as stars from around the world, including Shakira and John Legend and Black Eyed Peas. One of the keynote speakers of the night was South African archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu.

DESMOND TUTU: Welcome you all! For Africa is the cradle of humanity! So we welcome you home, all of you! All of you—Germans, French—every single one of you. We are all Africans! We’re all Africans! Oh! Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo! And we want to say to the world, thank you for helping this ugly, ugly, ugly worm—caterpillar, which we were, to become—to become a beautiful, beautiful butterfly. We are a beautiful, beautiful butterfly!

JUAN GONZALEZ: At the time of this broadcast, the opening ceremony of the World Cup is underway in Johannesburg. One person that is notably absent from the event is Nelson Mandela. South Africa’s iconic anti-apartheid leader and first black president is mourning the death of his thirteen-year-old great granddaughter, Zenani, who was killed in a car crash as she returned from last night’s concert.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, one of the most overlooked aspects of this year’s World Cup is the ongoing struggle of tens of thousands of shack dwellers across the country. Over the past year, shack settlement leaders in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town have been chased from their homes by gangs, arrested, detained without hearing, and assaulted. As the World Cup begins, a shack dwellers’ movement is mounting what they’re calling “Upside Down World Cup” campaign, to draw attention to their plight.

Raj Patel is a visiting scholar at the Center for African Studies at UC Berkeley, an honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. He administers the website—well, you’re going to have to say the name of the website, Raj. Tell us the website and what is happening in South Africa.

RAJ PATEL: OK, so the website is Abahlali— And the organization is called the Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is Zulu for “people who live in shacks.” Now, the reason this is an interesting organization is because when we’re seeing all the joy around the World Cup, it’s important to remember, of course, that the World Cup is not an unalloyed good. Not everyone in South Africa is benefiting from the World Cup. And in fact, you know, FIFA, the organization that organizes the World Cup, the Federation of—sorry, the International Federation of Football Associations, is an incredibly powerful organization that in many ways has sort of commandeered the willing South African government to be able to rearrange the country to make it more football- and corporation-friendly.

And so, around all the stadiums, for example, the stadia, are exclusion zones, where street traders have been moved away—informal traders, in some circles as they’re known—and in which a beautification campaign has been carried out. Of course, I mean, this isn’t a terribly new idea. I mean, the sporting events around the world, when they happen in the Global South, have usually been alibis for a few corporations and a few people to profit massively and for governments to engage in what they seem to—what they call beautification, or what more rightly is called gentrification and privatization.

Now, what’s happening in South Africa is very interesting. We’ve seen billions of dollars of subsidy given by the South African government to FIFA. But we’re seeing in the mainstream media stories coming up about how, while a few people, you know, tourists, are enjoying the World Cup, and the World Cup is being broadcast around the world, and while FIFA clearly has the power to get someone like K’naan to rewrite his song, we’re also seeing that poor people are excluded from the World Cup. And that’s an important narrative for us to have. It’s important to see that, for example, informal traders are being moved away. Or, for example, in Durban, artisanal fisherpeople, people who were normally allowed to fish from the piers in Durban, a struggle for which they fought very hard—it was one of the sort of key demands for certain people in the anti-apartheid struggle, is the freedom to be able to fish wherever you like—well, those rights have been rolled back for the duration of the World Cup.

And civil rights have been suspended in some places. I mean, today, for example, there was meant to be a protest in Johannesburg demanding education rights for everyone. But the government has denied the rights—denied the protest permission to march, because the police are otherwise occupied guarding the tourists and making sure that FIFA’s property and intellectual property is being safely guarded.

Now, what the shack dwellers have been saying—and shack dwellers throughout South Africa number in over a million households—shack dwellers are saying that, “Well, actually, we know—and this is a verbatim quote from S’bu Zikode, who is the head of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the president of the organization. He said, “We know that our names are being used to”—we know that—sorry, “We know that we’re going to be excluded, but our names are being used to justify the goodness of our country in the world. But the country is divided. There are certain people who are benefiting, and we are excluded. We want to tell the other side of the story.”

And so, the way that they’re trying going to tell the story is by making themselves visible. Some shack dwellers in Cape Town, for example, will be breaking the exclusion zone to set up shacks to show people how they live. And this is an important counter-narrative, because when the media sort of comes in and tells stories about poor people, what often gets left out is the fact that poor people are not just sitting there twiddling their thumbs. They are organizing, and they are using the World Cup, just as the World Cup is using them. And so, they’re using the World Cup as an opportunity to show the rest of the world how they live and the conditions in which they have been left to wait for development to come. So, in Cape Town, for example, there will be shack dwellers outside the exclusion zone—or sorry, within the exclusion zone, and there is a danger that they will be arrested.

And within Durban, shack dwellers who were chased from their homes last year will be trying to get back into their communities. They’ve been asked back by the communities that—where the violence that excluded them happened. And they’ve been asked back, in large part, by women. Now, the organizing that shack dweller organizations like Abahlali do are the kind of organizing that are actually very gender-sensitive. They provide childcare, they provide HIV/AIDS drop-in centers, all the things that are desperately needed in communities of poor people. And, of course, when we hear the World Cup, when we hear stories about the World Cup, gender is the one thing that gets dropped out. And so, what we’re seeing is a demand from women in shacks for their leadership and for organizations to come back and to provide support. And so, in this moment of World Cup celebration, what organizations of poor people are hoping is that the world media will pay a little bit of attention to what they’re doing and to provide some cover for the organizing that will happen long after the World Cup ends and the final whistle blows.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Raj, I’d like to ask you, about $6 billion was spent in the building of these various stadiums. How did the government finance all of this, given the huge problems and disparities, income disparities, that still exist in the country?

RAJ PATEL: Well, I mean, debt is the main way. I mean, the government has siphoned resources away from other projects, and there’s been a huge opportunity cost. This is money that shack dwellers and other people have been saying could have been going to housing, could have been going to education, could have been going to healthcare. But it’s been diverted to provide these white elephant stadiums, as Desmond Tutu called them, stadiums that will be scaled back or, in some cases, left to rot after the final whistle blows.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Raj Patel, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Among everything else, he is the author of The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Reclaim Democracy.