SAIRR Today: Is hosting the World Cup worth it? - 18th June 2010

South Africa is in the midst of hosting one of the biggest sporting events in the world, and it is set to cost the country money that could have been spent on other projects. Will the long-term cost of hosting the Football World Cup be worth it, or should the country have rather spent the money on tackling the many social and economic ills facing the country?

Much has been said about the cost of the Football World Cup to South Africa and how the money could have been spent on more pressing problems facing the country. This is all true. It must be questioned whether Cape Town and Durban needed to spend billions of rands on building new stadiums, when they had stadiums such as Newlands and Absa Stadium which would have been perfectly suited to hosting World Cup football. The construction of new stadiums in smaller cities such as Polokwane and Nelspruit also raised the country’s eyebrow. These two stadiums are likely to become white elephants after the World Cup in what are two of the country’s poorest provinces.

The number of tourists expected to come to South Africa and the boost to GDP that they would have provided has also been overstated. The global economic downturn has helped reduce the number of football fans who have come to this country. For example, Grant Thornton, a tax advisory and audit firm, originally estimated that 483 000 people would come to South Africa for the World Cup. It subsequently revised this down to 373 000. Many other foreigners who would have come to South Africa in this period are likely to have stayed away, turned off by overinflated prices and the hordes of soccer fans descending on the country.

Hosting the World Cup will cost South Africa money, not provide a windfall. Looking at the hosting of the tournament purely from a financial point of view, it does not make sense for South Africa to host what is probably the biggest sporting event in the world. Upgrading of infrastructure and construction and upgrading of stadiums for the World Cup cost taxpayers approximately R30 billion.

However, hosting the World Cup is about more than just money. It is an opportunity to rebrand a country. Germany, still tainted by the legacy of the Nazis and World War II, used the hosting of the World Cup in 2006 to reinvent themselves as a country. No longer were they seen only as a nation of dour but efficient workers but as one willing to welcome the world to their cities. South Africa has the same opportunity to rebrand itself.

Without the catalyst of the World Cup it is a valid question whether the Gautrain, a high-speed railway link, would have been ready when it was, and whether upgrades of major highways around the country would have been completed by the time they were. The Gautrain’s first link between Sandton in Johannesburg and OR Tambo International Airport was completed on schedule, as were most of the country’s highway upgrades. By meeting these deadlines South Africa has proved Afro-pessimists wrong.

Prior to the beginning of the tournament there was much doubt over South Africa’s ability to host it, especially in the European press, some the reports having racist undertones. One can not help but remember the British Daily Sport’s claim that vicious gangs of ‘machete-wielding blacks’ were stalking the streets of South Africa. Rumours also abounded that the event would be moved to Australia or the United States, as South Africa would not have completed construction and upgrades of stadiums and infrastructure in time. However, the country has shown that an African country is capable of hosting a world-class event, which would rival anything held in Europe or North America.

The World Cup will go a long way to changing perceptions of this country and the continent. South Africa has always been world famous for certain things, formerly apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Since the turn of the century the country has gained the (not entirely undeserved) reputation of being one of the most dangerous places on Earth. The election of an admitted polygamist as president last year also made the country a laughing stock in some quarters.

South Africa will, after the end of the tournament, be known for having hosted a successful World Cup, an event which probably figures more prominently in the global consciousness than even the Olympics. The country will have proved that an African country is capable of excellence and efficiency. South Africa and its taxpayers will be paying for this World Cup for decades, but the value of the change in perceptions of this country and the continent will have been priceless.

-          Marius Roodt