Friday, November 13, 2009

The World Cup: We don't need it

Christopher Merrett asks how SA sport ended up in its decrepit, commercialised state.

Next year's Football World Cup is a classic example of international capitalism in action. FIFA is one of several branches of the sports department of globalisation, each of which wields the political and economic power of a small nation. It has hired South Africa as a theatre upon which to stage a highly lucrative media event and already departed with the profit.

The Cup is about a great deal more than sport, the crowds simply part of the backdrop - the cost of their tickets is almost irrelevant. But the political dividends for the ANC are significant and the nation's new elite will be disporting itself in front of the world's cameras. The rest of the country will be enjoying a long holiday and the brief opportunity to forget South Africa's enormous burden of socio-economic problems.

There is no evidence from previous mega-events, or South Africa's current circumstances, that the World Cup will deliver any major benefit. Politicians traditionally lie about the projected economic and social outcomes of such events in order to requisition the resources required for their own political ends. The best guess is a pitiful 50 000 jobs and growth of 0.94% of gross domestic product. The World Cup was never intended for the benefit of township or suburban residents.

Taxpayers will pay dearly for this act of national prostitution destined to bequeath a clutch of expensive, white elephant sports stadiums. Health, education, police and local government infrastructure budgets will continue to suffer. This is a new form of colonialism - never mind the Chinese, Sepp Blatter's FIFA has got here first with commodified sport on a grand scale. And to keep visitors safe, a new form of apartheid will have to be erected to protect them from the violence that prematurely ends the lives of 30 000 South Africans every year.

The ANC has effectively nationalised football and badgered the population with endless propaganda about the World Cup; to such effect that even mild criticism has been suppressed. The media has bought into the myth of nation building through sport (the mystique of the 1995 rugby world cup victory is constantly invoked) and any dissent from this view is equated with treason.

Contrast the recent uprisings over service delivery in several townships and it is clear which option the government has chosen in response to the politicians' classic dilemma over bread or circuses. But an imposed national consensus will not outlast 2010. In 2011 the cosy relationship between nationalist politics, corporate wealth and media and sporting globalisation will no longer have even a circus to offer a suffering people.

This scenario should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of South African sport in the dying days of apartheid. The South African Council on Sport (Sacos) had operated as the internal wing of the anti-apartheid sports struggle since 1973.

While its roots lay in the principles of the Unity Movement, members came from different political backgrounds and Sacos was determinedly non-aligned. Although its aim was to transcend tendencies in the overall interest of sport, it contained more than a trace of Black Consciousness in its encouragement of self liberation.

It rejected compromise with racist sports bodies through an unswerving commitment to the double standards resolution and to the international boycott. But its main strength lay in community development and, from the early 1980s, support for strikes and other local struggle issues. Discipline was harsh, but members were expected to adhere rigidly to principles.

The position of Sacos was uncontested - the ANC gave general support to the boycott, but had no detailed policy or consistent engagement. Sacos was particularly concerned about the context in which sport was played - political, social and economic rights - and above all the shared humanity of sportspeople.

For a while sport provided one of few areas of South African life (others were faith-based organisations and the universities) in which the divisive intentions of the apartheid regime could be challenged effectively. And because apartheid was, strictly speaking, rooted in legislation, short-term, irregular use of space proved hard to control even given South Africa's bureaucracy. By the time the government had turned to illegality, sport was the least of its worries.

The apartheid regime had begun to unravel following the 1976 Soweto Uprising, but the national State of Emergency declared in 1986 marked a new crisis point. Amongst liberation movements the prospect of imminent power meant that principle was sacrificed to pragmatism.

The weaknesses of Sacos - insufficient penetration of the African townships and a tendency to dogmatism - made sport a soft target for the ANC. Its client, the National Congress on Sport (NSC), emerged in early 1988 with a message about a mass-based sports organisation, but pledging recognition of Sacos as the authentic anti-apartheid sports body.

The NSC, it was agreed, would organise the unorganised in areas where Sacos had traditionally been weak such as rural communities; and in the townships where the government's National Security Management System (NSMS) had proved hard to crack. Sacos recognised the NSC, but its trust was ruthlessly betrayed.

NSC innuendo (about organisations ‘purporting' to be non-aligned) and rhetoric predominated and it was soon apparent that this was an arrangement of bad faith and power politics in which Sacos members were cynically recruited. The NSC reneged on its original undertaking and became a home for two kinds of opportunist: those anxious to establish a future within what they shrewdly assumed would eventually become the new political establishment; and pragmatists keen to achieve rapprochement with the old white sports establishment.

Conflict arose over the continued boycott, between regions (Sacos remained relatively strong in the Western Cape), and amongst sports codes (cricket and road running proved fertile ground for the NSC). It took Sacos a year, a year that was to prove fatal, to declare the NSC a rival organisation.

The NSC was simply part of the cultural desk of the ANC. It had little substance other than the promotion of a particular political party. Its leading lights included names, then largely unknown, that would later become famous - Gwede Mantashe and Kgalema Motlanthe from the National Union of Mineworkers (affiliated to Cosatu); Valence Watson, Makhenkesi Stofile, Ngconde Balfour and Danny Jordaan from Sacos-affiliated sports codes; and Smuts Ngonyama and Jakes Gerwel.

The ANC was interested in political power - sport was simply a useful tool to that end. Sacos was ruthlessly sidelined, abandoned by its external partner the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (Sanroc) whose president, Sam Ramsamy, flourished under the new order. Dennis Brutus appropriately described Sanroc as gutless. The principles of Sacos were dismissed as unrealistic and hardline. South African sport was to pay for this - and continues to do so to this day.

It was offered cynically, on a platter, to the white community for two reasons: as compensation for the loss of political power; and as insurance to underwrite cultural identity (along with guaranteed religious freedom.) The moratorium was tossed into the dustbin, unity was fast-tracked and sport handed over to the business interests that would quickly commodify and package it for lucrative profit.

These were the same capitalists who had sponsored the mercenary tours of the 1980s in defiance of World opinion, the United Nations and the anti-apartheid struggle.

With time, as the ANC's need for the rainbow nation myth wore off, sport was used to pursue other objectives. Under the regime of Thabo Mbeki, racial nationalism was advanced by a new form of apartheid in the form of quotas. And after he gave way to the post-Polokwane generation, the agenda became more clearly fixed on ANC political interests as the antics of Leonard Chuene (athletics), Irvin Khoza (football) and the relentless promotion of the World Cup demonstrate.

In many codes sport had become totally subservient to the pursuit by individuals and interest groups of power, influence and wealth.

‘No normal sport in an abnormal society' was the famous Sacos dictum. Since the fall of white nationalism it has largely been forgotten, but contemporary events suggest that it should be re-examined. Extremes of wealth indicate that South Africa remains one of the most abnormal countries in the World.

The fate of sport since the silencing of Sacos nearly 20 years ago has been one of relentless political and commercial exploitation. Sacos believed that sport belonged first and foremost to communities and their people. Now, in no small measure because of ANC cynicism and opportunism, it is little more than a packaged commodity.

And perhaps the worst aspect of the loss of the Sacos legacy is the fact that its sharp socio-political analysis is no more. Scarcely a word is raised in protest or criticism. The unholy alliance of party political and corporate power has persuaded South Africans that commodification of sport is a natural and acceptable state of affairs. It is an appalling outcome to a process of liberation.

This article by Christopher Merrett first appeared in APDUSA Views, November 2009

5 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

Not only will the soccer be a financial catastrophy for SA but it will also bring a lot of media attention and that can only be bad for SA.
The media likes stories that shock the world. They will find plenty.
After the event the whole world will know the true SA.
Remember the Austrian golfer killed in Durban during the soccer event, it was in papers all over the world and on every TV news cast in Europe.

Viking said...

political involvement in sport is not new, and it's not even new in South Africa.
Secondly, the alienation from international sport from the mass of ordinary people is a worldwide phenomenon, also not confined to SA.
The World Cup will kickstart the economy, and guesthouse and business owners will benefit, so I am in support of it for those reasons. As for the costs, the taxpayers will bear it but the money would have been wasted anyway on some other white elephant project, at least in this one the taxpayers will have a chance to recoup something.

It will also cast a spotlight on the horrific crime in SA, and that can't be a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Anon more than Viking. Most hotels and guest houses had to get into extortion agreements in order to appear on the preferred hotels list. And even then, they have no idea whether they will actually get those bookings.
Those buying packages will pay outside SA: 10 days SA for EUR 800. How much of that comes to SA?
If Zuma wants to prove that he's worth all the attention than let him sort out 2 things: CRIME (starting at Government level!), Crime and Crime. Oh, well, that's three then .....

Anonymous said...

Adding to the article.

The ANC/UDF had to start the NSC, because they could not hijack SACOS like they hijacked COSATU. At that time they used lots of resources, actively supported by the reactionary liberals, to align ALL kinds of organizations to be "behind them" in the lead up to negotiations.

Under the slogan"FREEDOM IS NOT NEGOTIABLE" many organizations and activists (including most of the SACOS leadership), rejected compromise with the "enemy". For that reason, the ANC had to sideline SACOS with a make-believe grouping called NSC.

Today we can rightly asked these NSC supporters: WAS IT WORTH IT FOR THE MASSES?

SM度チェッカー said...
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