Enough of this circus

2013-06-27 00:00

A FELLOW member of Brics, and often seen as a competitor with South Africa for the title of the most unequal society in the world, Brazil has recently been rocked by widespread, and sometimes violent, protest. Its police have reacted with a heavy hand. And there is another significant parallel between our two nations, as hosts of successive Fifa World Cups.

The number of protesters involved is estimated at one million, spread across 100 towns and cities, and the phenomenon, involving both the middle and working classes, has been called the Tropical Spring.

When President Lula da Silva left office in 2010, he enjoyed an 80% approval rating, having presided over social-welfare policies that lifted 40 million people out of poverty. His successor, former political prisoner Dilma Rousseff, has been less fortunate: the context of her presidency has been economic slow down and financial instability, which have made socio-economic reform problematic.

Jo Griffin, writing in the Guardian, has described an “explosion of frustration and resentment”, which may be supported by up to 75% of Brazilians, according to opinion polls. Brazil’s extreme poverty is illustrated by the fact that 55% of its citizens have no access to sewerage systems, while favelas (slums) are built on rubbish tips. The failure of the legal system means that only 10% of murders are prosecuted. Brazil is notorious for its street children and there are widespread complaints about growing corruption holding back expenditure on health, education and transport facilities. Critics point out that too many Brazilians live in squalor.

It was an increase in bus fares, since rescinded, that originally sparked the protest. But what is highly significant is that the anger of the demonstrators, in a country often defined by historical success on the soccer field, has been turned against next year’s Fifa World Cup.

Former soccer player and now left-wing politician, Romario has called Fifa “Brazil’s real president”, and protesters outside a Confederations Cup match between Mexico and Japan at Belo Horizonte’s Mineirao stadium were shouting: “The cup for whom?”

Significant numbers of Brazilians have answered this question by suggesting that the R136 billion spent on the 2014 World Cup, treble the initial budget, reflects the priorities of the elite rather than their day-to-day concerns.

This was a view put forward in South Africa in the run-up to the 2010 Fifa World Cup, but it belonged to a very small minority, largely ignored and often dismissed as unpatriotic.

The Brazilians, large numbers of whom are feeling left behind by political and economic decision-making, have a much better-informed and sophisticated view of the relationship between international sports bodies and host nations, and the consequences.

It is yet another example of globalised exploitation in which expenditure is diverted from various means of poverty alleviation. Such is the power exerted by organisations such as Fifa over sovereign governments, that stadia are constructed around blatant corruption and forced removal. Brazil provides yet another example.

It is explained away by apologists as historic opportunity that showcases the host nation, but this means little to the struggling masses, particularly those living on rubbish dumps.

Political elites have become fixated on image and public relations, promising that somehow the benefits will trickle down to those lower on the socioeconomic ladder. It brings to mind the old debate about bread and circuses that has long underlain public policy around sports mega-events. The mainstream media teem with orthodox opinion about economic growth and propaganda about sport as a force for international understanding. But the Brazilian protesters’ banners tell a different story: “Genocide of the poor”; “A state for the people”; and, most challenging and philosophical of all, “The impossible is a matter of opinion”.

There is an overarching call for “a new Brazil”.

Rousseff, showing a commendable willingness to listen to grass-roots opinion, has responded decisively with a five-point plan for reform: to curb inflation, spend 100% of oil royalties on education, deploy foreign doctors to remote areas, invest R250 billion in transport, and put constitutional changes to a referendum. Some of these objectives may be unattainable, given globalisation’s attack on national economic sovereignty, or simply a delaying tactic.

And Brazil has a poor reputation for the failure of grand plans at the hands of the corrupt. Rousseff has a presidential election to win next year, so this is an opportune time to focus the mind of her government.

But in this intriguing example of anti-globalisation protest, one thing is virtually certain.

For the time being, Fifa and the other protocol-ridden, unaccountable, often corrupt trans-national organisations that run world sport, will continue to lord it over national governments. Nevertheless, there are now signs that the people have had enough of the circus.

Football stadia are no substitute for bread.

• letters@witness.co.za

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