Saturday, 12 June 2010

Why the World Cup isn't all bad

South Africa is hosting the World Cup. It is happening. It is no longer some distant possibility laughed off derisively by smug know-it-alls who so confidently asserted that an African country could never pull it off. We have proved that we are perfectly capable of doing it. The stadia are built, the Gautrain is running, the bus systems are working, the teams and fans have arrived at airports and are staying hotels and are not running through the streets being ambushed by gangs of panga-wielding 'blacks', as predicted by one UK tabloid.

And yet, the smug voices are not silent. Still, across media platforms and across the world, the murmur goes on that South Africa should never have been given the bid. Not (largely because they'd look like idiots saying it now) because an African nation can't do it, but because the money should have been spent on other things. This is the age-old refrain that poor countries should be spending their money on priorities identified by outsiders and never on anything else. Everyone has heard it. Most people have probably said it from time to time.

It is all part of a wide-spread and insidious idea that the rich know better than the poor how the poor should spend their money. The micro-scale example is do-gooders who firmly believe that the only way to help poor people is to give them food directly (preferably in the form of cooked, plated meals they will eat right in front of you) because otherwise they will go off and spent the money (or sell the food and spend the money) on other things like drink and drugs or luxuries like clothes. At no point is there any recognition of the fact that these people who need help may be better equipped than the smug, holier-than-though do-gooders to decide how best to slot this almost-insignificant bit of assistance into their broader coping strategies.

The same applies to countries, in spite of the risk of corruption (which does exist although not at the impossible levels often suggested by the smug ones). The suggestion that South Africa, the largest economy in Africa, is a poor country and therefore must be told by foreigners (or rich whites) how to spend tax money is not only patronising and insulting, it is illogical.

The argument goes that there are people in South Africa without jobs or houses, so there can be no justification to spend money building infrastructure like stadia and public transport with tax money. The logic is flawed. First of all, the problems that exist within South Africa - like lack of proper housing and unemployment - are not the result of a lack of funds. If they were, this statement might be justified. Suggesting that building stadia is stealing money from development is a problem because it is simply not borne out by the facts of SA's budget.

Let's take housing. The SA government has a responsibility to provide housing to meet needs progressively - ie when there is money. Money is allocated every year to housing departments. Each year, a portion of that money is returned because it wasn't able to be spent. There are various reasons for this. Although there are people on the waiting list for houses, in order for them to be accommodated (at least within existing checks and balances designed to prevent corruption), there must be land available, housing construction companies willing and able to do the work and, of particular relevance in SA because this is so very often where the gap lies, administrative staff within the bureaucracy who can manage the process. The money exists. The housing gaps are far more to do with lack of capacity than to do with lack of funds. Not building stadia isn't going to fix this. In fact, building stadia in partnership with municipalities may even (possibly) provide the skills development some of the municipal staff need to improve delivery in the future - which is a windfall spinoff, not a reason, of course.

Which brings me to unemployment. The arguments become even less logical here. The patronising arguments run that the government should be putting money into creating employment instead of investing in infrastructure. This in spite of the fact that hosting an event not only creates employment through the infrastructure investment but also stimulates the economy through a foreign cash injection, creating further employment opportunities.

This is not to say that the World Cup will solve all of South Africa's problems. It won't. The point is that it does not automatically make things worse. And more than that, that those smug, patronising people who rant about how a poor country should be spending money on things more important than sport may well be pedaling fallacies - fallacies which verge on prejudice against anyone with less wealth than themselves.

Finally, they're wrong about one last thing in the peculiar South African case and that is the root or at least manifestation of the race problems in the country. Because the reality is that the race problems in SA are not practical. We no longer have a situation where race correlates directly with income or wealth. Instead, we have a far more complex psychological problem, a situation which starts to be eased, if not resolved, when the sport of the majority is celebrated and supported by the whole of the country and when the country can all join together to shout for one team. South Africans are fairly down to earth people but a long and harsh history of oppression and war and drought has taught us to relish the chance to celebrate and sing. Those who say the World Cup is simply masking the real issues are over-analysing and, I think, missing some of the real issues they're so stridently seeking to find.

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