Let the poor eat cake

2015-03-31 15:00

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Durban is now the favoured city to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games, despite the fact that no one has the foggiest idea about the cost.

This is like gambling with the public purse, where the overburdened taxpayer bears the risk.

All matters relating to the bid for the Games (as with Fifa in 2010) remain a secret – in a democracy to boot. There was no public transparency and democratic accountability in the decision to bid.

And the usual platitudes have been spewed out by the beneficiaries of such bids – politicians, bureaucrats and business elites.

“Sustainable legacy?...?world class?...?an African first.”

And what about the poor? Well, let them eat cake.

Durban is following the global trend. Marketing a city as a mega-event destination has become a prominent, neoliberal, urban-promotion strategy.

One of the perceived advantages of hosting a mega event in a developing country is the influx of capital and profits that could address basic needs.

By being linked to influential sporting events, the host’s image is also boosted as a global destination for economic investment and tourism.

These competitions are said to have millions of spectators at the events themselves and billions of television viewers.

But in developing countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa, mega events become a public spending diversion from more urgent social needs such as water, sanitation, housing, healthcare and education for the poor.

Organisations such as Fifa, the International Olympics Committee and the Commonwealth Games Federation – all of which are not known for transparency and public accountability – have developed a “franchise” model for big sporting events. They enforce and monitor compulsory demands to which host cities must conform, their demands largely configured by the perspective of the developed world.

These include the number and type of stadiums, media facilities to reach global TV audiences, transport and infrastructure upgrades in and around host cities, and an increase in hotel accommodation for participants and tourists. On top of this, normal national laws are suspended to favour the international organisation during the event. And the bidding country commits to absorbing any cost overrun, a guarantee much like signing a blank cheque.

The infrastructure developed for the event is often of little or no use to the host city or country after the event and most of it has to be constructed from scratch. Developing and maintaining infrastructure is expensive.

In India, Brazil and South Africa, a key concern has been the sustainability of stadiums after these large events. Most host cities can’t afford to pay for the maintenance of stadiums and taxpayers bear the costs. The Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, for example, suffered an operating loss of R34.6?million in 2012/13.

The Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, which is likely to host the main programme of the Commonwealth Games in 2022. The stadium suffered an operating loss of R34.6m in 2012/13. Picture: Gallo Images

Bids for mega events are usually promoted by influential, politically connected people and groups in both the private and public spheres. These people operate in abstraction from public accountability.

They include global corporations such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Grant Thornton, which encourage governments to bid for such big events.

But such corporations serve as million-dollar consultants that “do not fully represent the population of a host city or nation, nor are they likely to speak on behalf of those who lack power and resources”, and for whom benefits are unlikely – the 2013 words of academics Jay Coakley and Doralice Lange Souza.

Research conducted by Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of the Oxford School of Business suggests “costs wind up being significantly higher than initially estimated?…?while?…?the actual benefits are lower”.

The original estimate for the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games was $270?million (R3.2?billion) and the final cost was $4.1?billion.

Recent mega events in India, Brazil and South Africa were used to promote the status and power of ruling elites, while serving as a catalyst to push the poor to the edges of – if not completely out of – cities.

Between 2004 and 2010, about 200?000 slum dwellers were evicted from Delhi for the Commonwealth Games.

More than 300?000 street vendors lost their livelihood after 2010 and many were arbitrarily evicted before the Games in the quest to promote Delhi as a world-class city.

Between hosting the Fifa 2014 World Cup and the Olympics next year, about 170?000 people have already or will be displaced in Brazil.

Fifa 2010 was used by the eThekwini Municipality to remove informal traders and shack dwellers.

Poverty was an embarrassment, so slums were purged, along with street children, informal traders and other signs of poverty.

There was simply no place for the poor. Durban 2022 will be no exception.

Maharaj is a geography professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

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