Invictus in reverse

March 11, 2010

In advance of the World Cup, South Africa's government is cracking down on activists and workers to make sure that no conflict mars the tournament.

YOU SEE it the moment you walk off the plane: a mammoth soccer ball hanging from the ceiling of Johannesburg International Airport, festooned with yellow banners that read, "2010 Let's Go! WORLD CUP!" If you swivel your head, you see that every sponsor has joined the party--Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch--all branded with the FIFA seal.

It's when your head dips down that you see another, less-sponsored, universe. Even inside this gleaming state-of-the-art airport, men ranging in age from 16 to 60 ask if they can shine your shoes, carry your bags or even walk you to a cab. It's the informal economy fighting for breathing room amidst the smothering sponsorship.

Welcome to South Africa, a remarkable place of jagged contrasts: rich and poor; black and white, immigrant and everyone else. On a normal week, it's the dispossessed and the self-possessed fighting for elbow room. But the 2010 World Cup, which starts in 90 days, has taken these contrasts and propelled them into conflict.

The present situation in South Africa could be called "Invictus in reverse." For those who haven't had the pleasure, the film Invictus is about the way Nelson Mandela used sport, particularly the near all-white sport of rugby, to unite the country after the fall of apartheid.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

The coming World Cup has, in contrast, provoked the camouflage of every conflict to present the image of a united nation to the world. As Danny Jordaan, the World Cup's lead South African organizer, said, "People will see we are African. We are world-class."

NOTE THAT the concern is about what the world sees, not what South Africans see. What South Africans see, as one young man told me, is, "football...looting our country." The contrasts are becoming conflicts because the government at the behest of FIFA is determined to put on a good show, no matter the social cost.

There are the dispossessions as thousands have been forced from their homes into makeshift shantytowns, to both make way for stadiums and make sure that tourists don't have to see any depressing scenes of poverty. The United Nations even issued a complaint on behalf of the 20,000 people removed from the Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town, called an "eyesore" by World Cup organizers.

There is the crackdown on people who make their living selling goods by the stadiums. Regina Twala, who has been vending outside soccer matches for almost 40 years, has been told that she and others must be at least one kilometer from the stadiums at all times. She said to the Sunday Independent, "They say they do not want us here. They do not want us near the stadium, and we have to close the whole place."

In addition, FIFA has pushed the South African government to announce that they would arrest any vendors that sell products emblazoned with the words "World Cup" or even the date "2010." Samson, a trader in Durban, said to me, "This is the way we have always done business by the stadium. Who makes the laws now: FIFA?"

Samson was only referencing the threats toward vendors, but he could have been speaking about the series of laws South Africa has passed to prepare for the tournament.

Declaring the World Cup a "protected event," the government, in line with FIFA requirements, has passed by-laws that "spell out where people may drive and park their cars, where they may and may not trade or advertise, and where they may walk their dogs." They've made clear that beggars or even those found of using foul language (assumedly off the field of play) could be subject to arrest.

Then there are the assassinations. In a story that has garnered international news, but little buzz in the United States, two people on a list of 20 have been assassinated for "whistle-blowing" on suspected corruption in the construction of the $150 million Mbombela Stadium. The Sunday World newspaper obtained the list, which included two journalists and numerous political leaders.

There are accusations swirling that the list is linked to the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which the ANC denied in bizarre terms. "The ANC...wants to reiterate its condemnation of any murder of any person, no matter what the motive may be," said ANC spokesperson Paul Mbenyane. It's never a good sign when you have to make clear that you are anti-murder.

All of these steps--displacements, crackdowns on informal trade, even accusations of state-sponsored assassinations--have an echo for people from the days of apartheid. It's provoked a fierce and wholly predictable resistance. In a normal month, South Africa has more protests per capita than any nation on earth. But when you factor in the World Cup crackdown, a simmering nation can explode.

Over 70,000 workers have taken part in strikes connected to World Cup projects since the preparations have begun, with 26 strikes since 2007. On March 4, more than 250 people, in a press conference featuring representatives from four provinces, threatened to protest the opening game of the Cup unless their various demands were met.

These protests should not be taken lightly. A woman named Lebo said to me, "We have learned in South Africa that unless we burn tires, unless we fight police, unless we are willing to return violence on violence, we will never be heard."

Patrick Bond from the Center Civil Society in Durban said to me that protests should be expected. "Any time you have 3 billion people watching, that's called leverage," Bond said. Indeed.

There is a scene in Invictus where Freeman's Mandela says, "I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. I am the master of my fate." The people of South Africa still consider themselves unconquerable, whether they face apartheid, FIFA or their current government. But FIFA insists with equal insistence that the World Cup will brook no dissent.

In 90 days, we'll find out who masters the fate of this beloved country.

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