Yellow Card for South African Media

Papers have offered little critical coverage of the World Cup and its ramifications

In terms of its emotional, psychological, and spiritual impact on South Africans, the World Cup has been repeatedly compared in recent weeks to 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island after twenty-seven years of imprisonment, ushering in the beginning of a peaceful transition to democracy after apartheid rule. In the twenty years since, the promise of that moment had dimmed for many South Africans. Hosting the World Cup on African soil for the first time in history represented a opportunity to be the “miracle nation” again.

“This is the single greatest opportunity we have ever had to showcase our diversity and potential to the world. We must rise and tell the story of a continent that is alive with possibilities and resilient people who embrace people from other nations and cultures,” said President Jacob Zuma in April. South African politicians assured the country that the World Cup was an unprecedented financial opportunity for the people. 20,000 jobs created just to build the stadiums; 450,000 tourists spending around $1 billion on goods and services; massive injections of cash into sorely underdeveloped transport systems.

The enthusiasm leading up to the World Cup spilled into the country’s newsrooms, as well. “Soccer City highlights African design and ingenuity,” “World Cup Fever Engulfs SA,” and “How to Have a Great World Cup,” are examples of some of the breathless headlines in the lead-up to the games. Even an Afrikaans newspaper, The Lowvelder, felt the excitement: “The time has come - feel it - it is here!” said one of the newspaper’s headlines. Historically, Afrikaners dismissed football in favor of their beloved rugby, so much so that during apartheid there was a near complete lack of governmental recognition and support for the sport, which was largely played in the ghettoized townships.

The cost of this “unexamined excitement”—or “boosterish journalism,” as Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail & Guardian, described it—has been high, as it prevented a hard look at the deep structural issues involved in hosting the World Cup. The nature of the government’s contract with FIFA, for example, was not examined thoroughly by the press, said Dawes. Once FIFA and the multinational corporate sponsors leave with untold profits in hand, it’s South Africans, of course, who will pay for the stadiums, and repay the billions spent on security, airports, and telecommunications throughout the games.

“We didn’t look very hard at the real economics of sport,” said Dawes. Horatio Motjuwadi, editor of The Sowetan, was harsher in his critique. “In our desperation to get the World Cup, we’ve accepted everything [FIFA] said. And they’ve taken over the country literally,” he said. “I don’t know what it will take to unravel FIFA.”

The lack of critical investigative pieces in the South African media regarding the World Cup has much to do with the government’s success in framing the tournament as a nation-building project. To be critical of anything to do with World Cup was to be critical of the country and its aspirations, and many reporters and editors were hesitant to assume that role. “Many journalists feel anxious about constantly carping articles because we feel we are at the heart of the process,” said Dawes.

Certainly, South African officials and civil servants were in a similar pyschological bind. In January, Mail & Guardian reporter Glynnis Underhill asked the mayor of Theewaterskloof, a town near Cape Town, about twenty Somali residents whose shops had been looted in an apparent xenophobic attack. “We don’t want you press people to put it in the paper that it is xenophobia,” said the mayor. “There’s a World Cup coming in a few months’ time. There would be an outcry if we say it is xenophobia and it involves only 20 people. You see, I love my country and I love the Western Cape.”

Newspaper readers also seemed to reject any negative articles that might reflect poorly on the country, or that criticized the World Cup preparations. “This World Cup is happening no matter how much you may want to jinx it with your negativity,” said one reader on the Mail & Guardian Web site, in response to an editorial that raised questions about the cost of maintaining stadiums, among other concerns. “Now do yourselves a favour and try to find the silver lining in the imaginary dark cloud that seems to be hovering over your heads. Stop politcising everything, this is a sporting event for God’s sake !!!”

Another reader wrote: “this is sport and it is for fun the only thing we should be doing now as South Africans is to rejoice and thank the LOC [Local Organizing Committee] for bringing us the world cup. however lets forgive those who want the WC to be a failure, they have no place in our society.”

As much as the 2010 World Cup was sold as an unequivocal social and economic boon to the South African people and the continent as a whole, the Cup’s actual legacy in South Africa may prove to be much more complicated. The undoubtedly grand achievement of pulling off the world’s biggest sporting event—the infrastructure improvements, the incredible amounts of money spent and deadlines met—raises unavoidable questions as to why the same effort and resources haven’t been put into easing the nation’s painful economic disparities.

Take the residents of Soweto, for instance, whose lives of poverty and disenfranchisement now play out in the shadow of the $300 million Calabash Stadium. “The shame of that contrast is overwhelming,” said one South African journalist. “Some dynamism should come out of that shame.”

Oddly, racial tensions may increase after the final match on July 11. Visitors from around the globe have been welcomed with genuine warmth by South Africans these last weeks, but reports have already started circulating in some South African news outlets that xenophobic pogroms, like those that killed sixty-two people in 2008, may occur once they leave. “The World Cup has just calmed it down a bit because we have to show our best face to the world and people are watching football rather than attacking their Malawian neighbour,” said Marius Roodt, a researcher with the South African Institute of Race Relations, as reported by Zimbabwe’s The Standard.

“Xenophobia is a fact in South Africa. You go to the townships, people will be saying, ‘No, these people are taking our jobs’…It is still bubbling and I don’t think the government is controlling it,” said Sowetan editor Horatio Motjuwadi about the situation. “Someone needs to come up with an ingenious plan to bring people together.”

What role the press will play in that plan—watchdog, cheerleader, conscientious participant—remains to be seen.

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Maura R. O'Connor is a freelance foreign correspondent. This year she was awarded a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship and will be reporting on American foreign aid from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa.