World Cup is a reminder of what's possible

Were we acting? Was it just an act? It was a Zimbabwean who put the right question with such precision. Fittingly, he did so at a National Arts Festival “think-fest”, a brief break from the World Cup.

This is the real legacy question. Not the gleaming new airports or the shiny new stadia; not the bright new buses: fresh infrastructure doesn’t vanquish socio-economic inequality or conquer racial division rooted in centuries of oppression.

No, the real question is whether the World Cup, akin to 1994, has broken the mould in some way, shaken the sinews of the muscles that contort this society to breaking point, and thereby recalibrated the way in which the inhabitants of South Africa relate to each other.

This is the political question that emerges from the World Cup. Put simply, crudely even: will the rich behave differently to the poor? Will they give more? Will they be more willing to pay more tax, to accept lesser profits, to take more risks with the unskilled and uneducated, to care more?

Has it changed society, adjusted social relations, reconfigured attitudes? We can agree that the World Cup engendered a remarkable sense of joviality and peaceful goodwill. But is it possible to have a “gees legacy”?

That a game involving a simple leather ball—albeit one as misguidedly sculpted as the rightly maligned Adidas Jabulani—could prompt such ambitious thoughts is a testimony either to the surreal escapist tendencies of the game or to its extraordinary universalist powers.

Of course it remains an outrage that so many citizens do not have sanitation or access to decent schools or health care. The World Cup’s success should not serve to mask the delinquency of South Africa’s public services or the inexcusable gulf between the quality of life enjoyed by the minority and that of the poverty-stricken majority.

And it would be foolish to romanticise the World Cup to the point that it blinds one from reality. Apartheid schooled this country in organising things for the benefit and enjoyment of the few, at the expense of the many. The World Cup was no different from that; a First World show superimposed upon a putrid, demeaning Third World squalor.

And in this sense it has been a superbly marshalled exercise in spin: as the Financial Times said on Tuesday, the World Cup, “it is generally agreed, has been a triumph”. This is the first measure of its success: as an act of rebranding or public diplomacy—to use the new posh term of national marketing.

But beyond the global spin, what the World Cup has done is to remind us all of what is possible—competent delivery of infrastructure renovation, confident performance of public services, a different attitude to public space and public transport and a new outlook towards our fellow citizens.

Fifa, for all its many faults and the illegitimacy of its autocratic control of a global public good, has compelled South Africa to accomplish things that, without much doubt, it could not have achieved if left to its own devices. No doubt there are those people who, with justification as well as self-righteous indignation, would argue vehemently that it has directed resources towards the wrong things—that instead of stadia we should have built houses and schools and hospitals.

Whether they are right or wrong, and whether the bill for staging the show (whether R30-billion or R40-billion) was a prudent use of public resources, can never be adequately resolved. The intangibles can never be satisfactorily measured.

Instead, we must ask whether the World Cup has changed us. Or was it just an act?

Middle-class football fans in this country represented a small minority before June 11. The rest of the middle class looked down on “soccer”, seeing it as, if not a “black” sport, then certainly a lower class of game. That elitist worldview has been shaken, if not shattered, by the past month. Few South Africans understood quite how big was the festival that was to roll into town. They have stood and watched in amazement at the sheer scale and vivacity of the show.

Now they understand that this is the global game, the People’s Game (dare I say). Rugby, they now understand, is a minority sport—when compared to football, it is the same as, say, tiddlywinks is to lawn tennis.

But instead of driving this elite into an insecure laager with higher (electrified) walls, it appears to have stretched and opened minds. The donning of the lurid yellow jersey was more than just symbolic. It was an act of nation-building.

Moreover, around the country I have watched as middle-class people have walked—not around a shopping mall or recreationally up a mountain—but functionally walked from A to B instead of taking a car. I have listened to middle-class people chatter with excitement as they board a Golden Arrows bus for the first time, or a Metrorail train to Soweto. To Soweto, nogal.

But was all this just an act? Will they do it again? I wonder. Probably not. Certainly not until they are totally confident that the same level of security is available as a matter of course.

For the many hundreds of thousands who went to games, or who went near to the stadia just to experience the atmosphere—and this was surprisingly common—it was an opportunity to experience “my city, in fact, my country, from a different perspective” (as one Newlands denizen put it to me last Saturday as he wandered towards the Green Point stadium with his family but sans match ticket).

There has been more than just a dash of 1994 in the air this past month. Can it be sustained? Or will it evaporate even faster than the “rainbow nation” myth in the mid-1990s, the bubble of goodwill punctured by the first whiff of corruption or story of government incompetence?

Or will we now collectively realise that politics, like football, is a matter of collective will and common spirit, that whether the required leadership is present or not, we can choose to set our society on a better, more just course? Can there really be such a thing as a “gees legacy”? Or has too much football and the pain of the Black Stars’ exit vanquished any sense of reason?

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