Sunday, January 31, 2010
It's Not Just A Game
The World Cup is arguably the most popular sporting event in the world. Fans from all over the world rally around their home countries, all eyes on the month long football tournament (seeing as this is an international event, I am going to try to avoid referring to the sport as soccer. My apologies if I fall back into it). The World Cup is exciting—there is no doubt about it. Stadiums get full of crazy, screaming football fans. Those who cannot attend will stay up throughout the night to watch their national team live. People take to the streets to celebrate big wins. If you are like me, and thrive off of collective excitement, it is hard not to get swept away. I don’t even particularly like football. Sure, I can get down with a pick up game every once in a while and I will always come prepared with a soccer ball when working with kids (especially if we don’t speak the same language. This has proved to be a lifesaver time and time again). But please don’t ask me to name a football player who is not Beckham or Ronaldinho. So why choose the World Cup as the focus for this article if I don’t know a damn thing about soccer? Because, as per usual with international sporting events (see: just about every Olympics ever) there is another story that needs to be told. A story about the people whose country is being invaded by contractors and rich tourists. A story about the political and social upheaval that often accompanies such events. In this case, a new story about South Africa.
South Africa’s popular story is a remarkable one. It includes the gravest of racial relations, a charismatic leader, and a peaceful revolution. South Africa is home to the highest GDP in Africa, a black head of state, a world rugby championship, and now the coveted World Cup. The country is easily celebrated, and now the world has the chance to do so. The United States and our international friends will be able to gaze at South Africa (from afar of course, because god forbid we take the risk of actually visiting the country) through the eyes of a proud parent.
But I don’t want to talk about South Africa’s past or its remarkable transition into the world economy. I want to talk about South Africa today. I want to tell a different story. A story that takes a football tournament and adds to it some of the gravest injustices: forced evictions, child slavery, and a separation between rich and poor that most do not understand.
Let us start with the forced removal of citizens (those who are familiar with South African history will recall the forced removals of the Apartheid regime). While studying in South Africa in the spring of 2008, I had the opportunity to study with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, a grassroots movement dedicated to housing rights for all South Africans. As an umbrella organization for over 40 communities, the AEC takes on local government officials to fight for basic human rights: housing, water, and sanitation. Throughout South Africa, informal settlements were developed as a way for the Apartheid regime to house migrant workers close to the cities. They still exist and are currently in terrible condition (as in many countries throughout the world). As you drive west from Cape Town International Airport on the N2, you will quickly encounter the Joe Slovo Informal Settlement. Located in Langa, the oldest black township in the Western Cape, Joe Slovo is the home to approximately 20,000 residents. There is no indoor plumbing, water is retrieved from taps, and bathrooms function by using the “bucket system.”
About 5 years ago, a housing contractor (Thubelisha Homes) unveiled plans to clear the settlement to make room for subsidized rental and full ownership units. It was promised to Joe Slovo residents that 70 percent of the new units would be made available to current residents and 30 percent would be filled by backyard-dwellers in surrounding townships. It probably goes without saying that this promise was never realized. The houses that were created are too few in number and unaffordable for the residents of Joe Slovo, those active citizens who were completely left out of this decision. The community mobilized against this injustice in 2005, partnering with the AEC and undergoing a direct action campaign against the state.
I am not going to get into the details of the campaign because that would require another paper in itself (one I have already written, if you are interested) but instead, I will jump over four years to June 2009 when the Constitutional Court of South Africa handed down its final ruling in the Joe Slovo case. It was decided that the residents would be forced to relocate to Delft, a township about 40 minutes outside of Cape Town (compared to the 15 minutes between Langa and the city) where public transportation is scarce and jobs are few. Described as the largest “judicially sanctioned eviction in post-Apartheid South Africa,” this ruling will not only effect the 20,000 residents of Joe Slovo but the urban poor all around South Africa.
Many argue that this project is nothing more than a beautification project, focused on clearing the N2 before the World Cup. In fact, even the official report on the project published by the National Department of Housing states that the project has been prioritized in light of its high visibility on the gateway corridor linking the Cape Town International Airport to the main city. Simply put, the country needed to get rid of its urban poor before wealthy tourists started to flock to the state. This is just one example of the kind of removals that are occurring in multiple places throughout the country.
The major difference between this forced removal and the ones that Verwoerd and his racist cronies historically enforced is that the removal is now being enforced by a black government rather than a white one. Citizens in South Africa are no longer systematically discriminated by the color of their skin, but instead by their wealth. It is hard to empirically measure income inequality, but it is not impossible. The GINI index is a scale that measures just that on a 0-100 scale. I can’t explain the math behind it, but the more unequal a country’s income distribution is, the higher its GINI index. As of 2005 (the most recent data to date), South Africa has a GINI index of 65. For a country that is routinely praised for its successful entrance into the world economy, consequently a lot of people are being left behind. In the end, the South African government will have contributed 17.4 billion rand (2.3 billion USD) to World Cup infrastructure. Some of that will come back during the tournament in the form of revenues from wealthy tourists, and there will, for another 6 months, continue to be an increase in short term jobs. But had a fraction of that money been spent on rebuilding communities like Joe Slovo, people could have kept their homes and their livelihoods.
A few weeks ago, TIME magazine published an article about the lucrative sex trade in South Africa. The article was terrifying. I recommend you all read it. In short, the human trafficking industry is growing, and its main benefactors are awaiting the World Cup with open arms. "I'm really looking forward to doing more business during the World Cup," said a trafficker. Another, who admits to luring young girls from Johannesburg, said about the upcoming tournament, “Yeah, this is good! Us people are going to make a lot of money then if you know what you're doing.” There is little being done about this in South Africa, and here at home. Slavery is illegal in South Africa but there is no specific law about human trafficking in all forms. In fact, convictions for sex trafficking bring little or no jail time and there are rumors of officials colluding with sex traffickers. I can’t do this article justice so I will leave you with some numbers. It is estimated that in South Africa (just to reiterate, the richest country in Africa) 38,000 children are forced into the sex trade annually. And Obama, who has pledged to make ending modern day slavery a top priority in his foreign policy (surprised? Yeah, me too), spends more money on fighting drug trafficking in a day than he does on fighting human trafficking in a year.
South Africa is a beautiful country, and I will always have a deep love for it. I am not critical of South Africa in the hopes that it fails, but insofar that it reaches its true potential as a nation. A nation that takes care of its own, of the people surrounding it (this article did not go into immigrant relations, but as you know, they are not pretty either), and its resources. I hope the World Cup goes smoothly and that South Africa loses its historical stigma of rape and murder. But I also hope that the masses there and throughout the world demand people listen to today’s story.