Politics & Policy

The Challenges Facing South Africa and its World Cup

A stadium under construction in Cape Town. Andrew Deacon

The road to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup has been long for the 32 national teams that have made the final cut of the world’s most-watched international sporting event. But that road has been longer, rougher, and much more expensive for the Republic of South Africa, which was chosen as the host of the 2010 event back in 2004. In the intervening six years, South Africa has laid out a strategy for using the multi-city soccer tournament as a catalyst for local economic development and countrywide infrastructure investments. Those preparations are underway, and the country has made broad physical and institutional improvements since being chosen to host the tournament. But with less than three months until kickoff on June 11, South Africa still faces many challenges and unanswered questions – not the least of which is what happens after the World Cup is over.

For a little background, the World Cup takes place every four years, and in most of the world it is probably the most important sporting event on the calendar (the U.S. team will be part of the competition, by the way). Fans travel thousands of miles to support their national teams as they battle to earn the Cup. This also means hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of foreign supporters piling into the host country and its handful of host cities during the month-long tournament. Preparing to host the games and absorb the boom of tourists requires years of planning and billions of dollars of investment. South Africa has spent both, and is hoping their investment of time and money will pay off in terms of the nation’s international reputation and economic vitality.

I’ve been following South Africa’s preparations for this event for the past few years, and have been maintaining a news blog that tracks some of the most significant urban planning news related to the World Cup. For a relatively developing country and the first on the African continent to host such a high-profile event, there’s been a lot to cover. From stadium construction to public transit creation to road infrastructure improvements, the urban impact of the World Cup has been unfolding for years, and will continue to up until the event’s June-to-July run.

Unlike the Olympics, the World Cup is spread out into a number of cities within the host country. Nine cities will host World Cup matches, including Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, which are South Africa’s most populous cities. A total of ten stadia will be used during the event, five of which are existing facilities being renovated for the Cup, and five of which are being built from scratch. Though there had been many concerns early on that the stadia wouldn’t be built in time, or that the host cities would be unable to hosts the games, progress over the past 6-9 months has quelled them.

However, many challenges remain. Transportation is a key problem in South Africa, where unsafe roads and unsafe drivers make car travel a hectic and dangerous prospect. And within its major cities, public transit has historically been absent. Ahead of the World Cup, cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town have developed bus rapid transit systems to transport people within the metropolis and to the soccer matches. And the first leg of a regional rail system has connected downtown Johannesburg with its international airport. Despite these projects (and many of the stadia) running far over budget and sparking local controversies, these are some of the long-term legacies South Africans are expected to enjoy after the World Cup is over.

Other legacies that are likely to remain in the country even after the World Cup are some of its most pressing problems – and part of the reason some within South Africa and beyond have questioned the wisdom of the estimated $3 billion invested by the national government. Crime, poverty and unemployment are rampant, and those problems are likely to see little improvement as a result of the World Cup.

A recent economic analysis argues that the upper classes will likely reap most of the Cup’s benefits. Another suggests that overambitious local businesses are likely to invest too much in their overhead costs to see any appreciable increase in revenue from the World Cup. And with an average of nearly 50 murders a day, South Africa’s crime problem has been a major PR concern leading up to the event – and it will likely be a major issue for the host cities to contend with when visitors come into town. Local officials are trying to dispel those concerns, but the influx of moneyed foreign tourists is highly likely to result in some violent and headline-grabbing criminal activity.

These are all issues I’ll be looking into in more depth in the coming months. I’ll be traveling out to South Africa in May and staying into the middle of August to report on the urban impact of the World Cup in South Africa. From the small businesses hoping to cash in on the Cup to the temporary “fan park” viewing areas being built in the host cities to the violent battle between taxi drivers and the emerging public bus systems, I’ll be exploring a vibrant set of issues that should illuminate the challenges of hosting these sorts of international events – especially for similarly developing Brazil, which will be the next host of the World Cup in 2014, as well as the 2016 Summer Olympics.

So as the global spotlight warms up to shine on the first African World Cup, excitement within South Africa is growing strongly. But it’s a nervous excitement, and one that qualifies its optimism with a deep-seated hope that the economic potential of the World Cup doesn’t turn into a deep hole of debt out of which the country is unable to climb.

Tags: built environment, governance, south africa, stadiums, world cup, nate berg, cape town, johannesberg, soccer, fifa