The Lasting Legacy of the 2010 FIFA World Cup

The Lasting Legacy of the 2010 FIFA World Cup

WINNER OF THE BACKDOOR: The day after Spain held aloft the 2010 World Cup trophy, we found ourselves listening to South African talkback radio during a long drive down towards the country’s picturesque Eastern Cape. The topic for the show was what hosting the World Cup had meant to each listener.

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As the kilometres whizzed by caller after caller expressed their pride, as South Africans, to have proven the doubters wrong by staging one of the most spectacular sporting events ever.  The tournament had been an unabashed success: the third highest attendance of any World Cup, marked by a carnival atmosphere throughout (despite the early elimination of the host country’s team), and barely a security incident to speak of. Hundreds of thousands of international visitors had left the country wowed.

World Cup South Africa Fans

World Cup South Africa Fans / Photo by babasteve

A transformed nation

It had been no small achievement for South Africa to pull off. For so many people to watch the matches, the nation had constructed seven glistening new state-of-the-art stadiums, each of distinctly African architecture. Several cities, Cape Town and Johannesburg among them, had also launched vastly improved mass rapid transit systems to ferry spectators out to each venue. To allow smooth passage between the nine host cities, road networks and airports had been greatly upgraded.

Violent crime, so central to the country’s international reputation, had been reduced by 60 per cent during the tournament to make South Africa one of the safest host nations in living memory. With crime down, host cities could show off their redeveloped waterfront districts and entertainment areas and all and sundry could confidently walk along the streets well into the night. For the few crimes that did occur, increased police deployments and 56 dedicated World Cup courts provided swift and decisive justice. Why, asked one caller, did these achievements have to end now that the tournament was over? The question is a particularly pertinent one: Why could South Africans not continue to do for themselves what they had done so well for the massive influx of international visitors?

An epic road trip

My partner Dave and I were two of the most enthusiastic among this influx of ‘visitors’ (South Africa’s term for international tourists). During the 31 days of the tournament, we drove around 8000 kilometres to watch eleven of the 64 matches played, visiting eight of the ten stadiums in the process and passing through every single South African province. Our epic odyssey saw us cross paths with other visitors from every continent on earth, as well as South Africans from all walks of life. And it had all taken place amidst a stunning diversity of landscapes and wildlife, ensuring that the long journey was never for a moment dull.

The South African welcome

Quite apart from the spectacular stadiums, the clockwork organisation and the amazing games, it was the genuine warmth and welcome from all South Africans, regardless of race, ethnic group and economic background, that made attending the tournament such a remarkable experience. Everywhere we went, once people discovered we were ‘visitors’, they would instantly initiate conversations with us. More than once, while waiting for our car to be refilled, we would be spontaneously approached by another young black petrol station attendant who just wanted to chat about football. We also met numerous older wealthier white South Africans, many of whom were more interested in the upcoming rugby season and the match against the New Zealand All Blacks. While doing a coastal hike in between matches, a lovely couple asked about how we were enjoying our time in South Africa, where we were going; about our background and interests and recommended a lovely place for lunch. No one seemed to take notice of us being an inter-racial couple (I am a Chinese who grew up in New Zealand and Dave is an Australian of Scottish descent).

Racial and social divisions still exist

And yet, as wonderful a host as each South African was, even the most casual visitor could not miss the social and economic divisions that are everywhere apparent. The democratic elections that swept Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power may have taken place sixteen years prior, but the change of political system could not erase Apartheid’s legacy overnight.

Many of the towns we visited remained visibly divided into different suburbs that were effectively two different worlds. Poorer, more dilapidated streets and suburbs made up a world inhabited by black South Africans, while just across the way others lived in better kept, visibly more affluent world. Beyond this geographic separation, different groups seemed to keep to themselves even where day-to-day life brought them into close proximity. People of different races may now sit in the same cafes and restaurants, but we rarely saw them sitting around the same table.

The divisions on view were not simply between black and white, or between the various other “colours” represented within the population of the rainbow nation. With the stark inequalities between the nation’s rich and poor, the haves and have-nots of each Apartheid-era grouping also had their separate worlds. In Johannesburg, Durban and Mthatha, we encountered a black middle class whose lifestyles are far removed from those living in rural townships. We also saw a vignette of social tensions between different white people, in an exchange at a fan park between fellow South Africans supporters of the Dutch team. When the one fan failed to understand a sentence in Afrikaans from the other and answered “I speak English,” the other angrily retorted, “Then you’re not a real Dutch fan”.

The contrast between the attitudes of South Africans to ‘visitors’ with their guardedness between each other poses a second pertinent question: If South Africans could extend such universal goodwill to visitors of all races and ethnic groups from around the world, why could this sense of trust and togetherness not be always be extended to each other?

World Cup legacy

In trumpeting the success of the World Cup, the South African government has focused on the concrete economic benefits: masses of new jobs in the construction and hospitality industries generated in preparation for the influx of visitors, a noticeable bump in gross domestic product (GDP) from the money spent in-country by visitors, and shiny newly built infrastructure. The infrastructure apart, however, these tangible benefits are inescapably short-term. Employment, for instance, is expected to decrease in the coming year now that there are no more stadiums to build, while the GDP bump is likely to be just that, a one-off anomaly. If these were to be the only benefits of hosting the World Cup and receiving so many visitors, then South Africans might rightly question the cost. But what we have seen during our approximately 8000 kilometre journey across the country suggests a more significant legacy from the tournament, albeit one that is less tangible: South Africans have shown to the rest of the world that their nation is capable of making its streets safe, of providing quality and secure public transport and more importantly, overcoming racial and social barriers in its day-to-day personal interactions. Besides creating a sense of national pride, this achievement can also become a catalyst for the population to realize new possibilities both of what the country, collectively, can deliver and more importantly, the public services and respect that every person deserves.

Inside shot of the World Cup stadium / Flickr Photo by Jason Wojciechowski

Some of the improvements made during the World Cup have already been continued. The World Cup courts, for instance, have continued operations, in order to assist the regular courts to handle the logjam of cases. At a personal level, there is also plenty of cause for optimism. During the World Cup, the “fan fests” established in parks, beaches and other public spaces in the various host cities were sites where social and economic divisions were left at the gate. Tens of thousands crammed into each of these fests on South Africa match days to will their team to victory; the fests were again packed in the later stages of the tournament as South Africans enthusiastically responded to appeals to adopt a new team. Thrown together with football to break the ice, a friendly atmosphere prevailed. More flamboyantly dressed fans happily posed for photos with people of all backgrounds, while people mingled, danced together, and compared notes on how the match would pan out. It was also in the fan parks that we saw our first inter-racial couple, and saw teenage friends of different races sitting together. This new togetherness did not escape South African commentators, as papers during the tournament were filled with column after column wondering how long and whether it could persist.

If just some of these opportunities for change are seized, then the lasting legacy of the World Cup will be that in proving to visitors what they could achieve, South Africans have themselves re-imagined what their nation could and should be.