In the host’s hands

2010-04-17 00:00

ON THE surface, it has been a gloomy week or two for the 2010 World Cup. Perhaps there hasn’t been a gloomier fortnight for the event since the wave of xenophobic attacks in May 2008 that killed 62 people and left thousands homeless.

What should be the proudest moment for South Africans since Nelson Mandela’s release and the 1994 elections has been overshadowed by events, racial tension and the irresponsible utteran­ces of an uncontrollable, overgrown brat, who calls himself a youth politician.

Danny Jordaan has been at pains to point out that Eugene Terre’Blanche’s brutal murder was an isolated internal crime and should have no impact on touring fans’ safety concerns. Nonetheless, the coverage of the killing can only have been detrimental to some extent internationally. Most of the overseas coverage has mentioned the World Cup and has ranged from the objective to outright scaremongering, with the worst example being the UK tabloid Daily Star, which outrageously claimed tourists to the tournament risked being caught in a “machete race war”.

Such coverage, along with the 2008 xenophobia and reports on South Africa’s sky-high violent crime rate, and shooting by separatist extremists at the Togo team bus in the Angolan province of Cabinda at the start of the African Nations Cup in January, must all, to some extent, have helped undo the assurances Jordaan has made for six years that there will be no mortal danger to 2010 visitors.

To some in Asia, Europe and the Americas, it scarcely matters that Angola is another country and that South Africa has no separatist terrorists in it — what matters is that it happened at a major tournament in Africa. The perception might be that it could happen again, regardless of the far greater capacity of this country’s security for­ces compares with Angola’s.

Julius Malema’s uncontrolled rhetoric, including calling a BBC journalist a “bastard”, haven’t helped the situation.

Jordaan’s revelation this week that only some 200 000 tickets have been sold overseas, and his admission that the original projected figure of 450 000 travelling fans now seems unattainable, has added to the despondency.

Reports from traditional major sources of World Cup travellers in Germany, Holland and Asia are that the slow sales are more down to the unfortunate timing of the global economic recession, though safety fears have played a role.

How much impact all of this will have on the scale of the final product that will hit this country’s shores in just over 50 days’ time, though, is debatable. It’s still a Soccer World Cup. It’s still huge. Reports that potential visitors are newly concerned by the political climate in South Africa are balanced by others saying they remain unmoved.

As an example, if French right-wing leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, were hacked to death in his home by Algerian immigrants just before the Rugby World Cup in 2007, would you have cancelled your trip? Surely not. Would you have avoided travelling to Austria in the 1990s when full-scale acts of war and genocide were being committed in the Balkan states, just a few hundred kilometres away?

For this reporter, too, the talk of gloom is all getting a bit much. A lunch hour spent at a typically conservative midlands pub recently helped put events of the past weeks in perspective.

In an almost empty pub, I was forced to eavesdrop on the conversation of a table of white people nearby, who were spending their afternoon moaning and bitching about the country in a predictably mundane manner. Interspersed with their griping, they would talk about this acquaintance who had just bought this piece of property for half-a-million, and another who had just sold that property for two million.

The bar staff and waitresses were largely ignoring the conversation — probably because they had heard it a thousand times before. But with such insensitivity, by what seems to be such a large portion of the wealthiest section of the population, to the real problems people have in this country, it’s no wonder people support Malema.

The biggest problem in South Africa is people living behind fences and not getting to know each other. And the more people misunderstand one another, the more they fear each other. And as long as that continues, very little will improve. That’s why white people have to start going to football.

Due largely to naivete, the World Cup has been regarded as a solution to all South Africa’s problems. This could possibly be far from the case. Mexico held the 1986 tournament, which was one of the most vibrant in the World Cup’s history, but the country remains poor to this day. The military junta in Argentina continued to rule for 13 years after that country held the 1970 World Cup, and the hosting of the world’s greatest sporting spectacle, of course, had no impact on slowing the rate at which people continued to disappear under the dictatorship.

On the other hand, Barcelona transformed itself from the old woman of Europe to its current status as an economically booming jewel of the continent, subsequent to its hosting of the 1992 Olympics. South Korea advertised itself globally as an emerging economic power when Seoul hosted the 1988 games.

What will determine whether the World Cup in South Africa leaves a successful legacy and makes a lasting impact depends on what this country makes of hosting of the tournament. And this applies from the president down to each ordinary citizen. The World Cup can bring people together in South Africa. But will it ensure that in five years’ time I don’t overhear the same conversations in the same midlands pub? It seems a long shot.

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