The Finest Multipurpose Stadia in Africa -
Is South Africa pouring billions into solid legacy projects or mothball giants? By ALEX DUVAL SMITH in Cape Town
AFTER defying sceptics and seeing through an outstanding six-year marathon of planning and building, South Africa will, from June 11, host the world’s biggest sporting event. Just 20 years after Nelson Mandela’s release, the former pariah state will play host to 64 matches, featuring the biggest football stars on the planet. After the final whistle on July 11, millions of television viewers around the world will watch the trophy being raised for the first time on the African continent.
And then what? Will the event truly have advanced Africa’s cause? Will South Africans benefit from the infrastructure that 13 billion rands (US$1.7 billion) were spent to build? The debate is only just beginning and is polarised.
It is impossible to sit in Cape Town’s impressive US$600 million stadium without being awed at the 68,000-seat edifice which was built by 2,500 workers in just under three years. The mayor of the city, Dan Plato, calls it ‘’one of the world’s sporting landmarks’’. Eight World Cup matches will be played here in June and July, including one semi-final. The seaside stadium, which has 37,000 square metres of glass roofing to protect spectators from the elements, is Cape Town’s most expensive building ever.
In Durban, the splendid 70,000-seater Moses Mabhida Stadium is inspired by the South African flag. Its arch — carrying a cable car — represents the unity of the nation. Johannesburg’s gourde-like Soccer City, with 95,000 seats, is now Africa’s biggest stadium.
The government, during the bidding process for the World Cup, had stated that it expected to spend R6.7 billion (US$550m) on stadiums and infrastructure. That amount has risen to R13 billion, including R9.8 billion (US$1.3bn) on the six new stadiums and five upgraded ones.
But is this justifiable? The sceptics point out that South Africa is the country in the world with the widest wealth gap. Half the population earns an average of US$200 a month. Official unemployment — despite 70,000 jobs created by infrastructure schemes linked to the World Cup — sits stubbornly at 30 per cent of the workforce. HIV remains a huge challenge, with a quarter of pregnant mothers still testing positive and anti-retroviral drugs still reaching less than 50 per cent of the infected population. What is more, the economy in 2009 went into recession.
Sowetan columnist Andile Mngxitama was initially accused of being unpatriotic when he raised doubts about the value of the event to South Africa. But even as World Cup fever mounts, he remains unashamedly critical: “The government has enslaved itself to an event that will turn South Africa into a playground for European tourists. When the event is over, we will still be poor.’’
He believes the stadiums are white elephants. Critics like him cite corruption allegations and tender irregularities in connection with the World Cup that have now prompted South Africa’s Competition Commission to launch an investigation into the building trade.
One of the most shocking examples of excess is to be found at the US$100 million Mbombela Stadium, built on the site of a school serving an impoverished community in Nelspruit, near the Kruger Park. During construction of the 46,000-seater, the schoolchildren were accommodated in containers with no plumbing. Parents complained of their daughters being raped by construction workers. The school still has not been replaced. Around the stadium, local residents live in simple dwellings and shacks, without water or electricity. In January 2009, a local politician, Jimmy Mohlala, was brutally murdered after attempting to blow the whistle on tender irregularities linked to the stadium, which will be used for just four matches.
The Cape Town stadium has attracted criticism for being located in middle-class Green Point— a long journey from the city’s football-loving townships. The project also ran over budget to the tune of US$190 million.
But Cape Town’s Director of Communications Pieter Cronje denies the stadium will be a white elephant. “It is true that there will be 11 hungry stadiums in South Africa after 2010. But this is a world class multi-purpose stadium in a city that is very attractive to international stars. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. Now that we have the stadium we believe the stars will come.”
It is reasonable to be equally optimistic for the Durban stadium and for Johannesburg’s Soccer City and the revamped Ellis Park. All are multi-purpose sports facilities serving large communities. But it is not unreasonable to foresee that Mbombela Stadium, along with the World Cup facilities in Polokwane, Rustenburg and Port Elizabeth will be mothballed after the tournament, for all but a few evangelical church services and political rallies.
Defenders of the World Cup point to the creation of bus networks in major cities as a solid legacy project. They are not wrong but these much-needed services did not require a football tournament to be brought into existence. Proponents of the event cite the special R1.3 billion (US$170 million) in health spending as a legacy, but critics counter that — apart from Port Elizabeth’s new accident and trauma unit — the money is being spent largely on vehicles and portable first aid equipment destined for use on foreign football fans before they are transported to private clinics.
Local Organising Committee CEO Danny Jordaan, who has dedicated 12 years of his life to bringing the World Cup kick-off to South Africa, despairs of the critics. “This World Cup is not for South Africa. It is for the whole of Africa. The fact that we are going to prove to the world that we as Africans can organise such an event is going to change the continent’s image forever.’’
Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, also sees the broader picture: “With all the negative things that are taking place in Africa, this is a superb moment for us. If we are going to have white elephant stadiums at the end of it, it is worth it”
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