Is the World Cup Bad for South Africa?

As the FIFA World Cup advances into the semifinals, millions around the world continue to follow the drama being played out in stadiums around the country.

Less known is the ongoing debate over the World Cup’s impact on South Africa; a debate that has been simmering long before the June 11 kickoff in Johannesburg.

Initially championed as a source of national pride, a boon for the country’s flagging economy and an opportunity to bridge racial divisions, some commentators and human rights activists are questioning whether the World Cup is harming, rather than helping South Africa.

One criticism centers on the displacement of local street vendors in favor of FIFA’s corporate sponsors such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Streetnet International, a group representing street vendors and informal traders, estimates that as many as 100,000 street vendors could lose their income streams during the event.

Some critics claim that the World Cup isn’t just displacing the poor, but also investment in health, housing and education projects in the country. Blasting the government’s decision to pump $107 billion into World Cup infrastructure, policy analyst and social activist Liepollo Lebohang Pheko argues that the money would have been better spent on durable projects with greater long-term returns.

“It is estimated that World Cup-related infrastructure spending is equivalent to ten years of housing investment,” says Pheko, who is part of the Africa Social Forum Secretariat.

Echoing Pheko, other critics assert that the event will benefit big business rather than everyday South Africans.

“Scarce public resources have been diverted from much-needed public projects to a spectacle that generates significant revenue—but mainly for FIFA, football’s governing body, and big corporations,” notes one South African academic and self-described football fan, in a Harvard Business Review blog posting.

“Local factories were not even awarded the contract to produce the official mascot—Zakumi—instead the work went to a factory in Shanghai,” he adds.

Until the final World Cup match wraps on July 11, there is little argument that South Africa will continue to occupy center stage in the sporting world. The extent to which the event has either benefited or harmed the country will likely not be known until after the game is over and the last fans have departed.

Blog post by Erin Zaleski, Journalist & IDEX Volunteer

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