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After World Cup euphoria fades, South Africa's poverty will remain Add to ...

In the working-class neighbourhoods around Ellis Park stadium, on every match day, there is an odd parade: The rich strolling past the poor.

The residents of Millbourne Road sit quietly on their stoops, watching the parade of soccer fans, occasionally blowing a lonely vuvuzela or shouting a brief chorus of "Ole, ole." Some try to sell cheap snacks to the World Cup visitors, or pose for photos for the tourists. But in the main, they are on the sidelines of this glitzy global event.

Anyone who has glanced at a stadium crowd at this World Cup knows the unspoken story: the overwhelming majority of the ticket-holding fans are affluent foreigners or affluent South Africans - especially whites and those of Asian descent. Only a small percentage are representative of the country as a whole.

And that's one of the main complaints emerging in South Africa today. The critics say that this is an elite event, for wealthy athletes and affluent spectators, at a cost of $5-billion in government funds, and it provides little direct benefit to the largely impoverished people of this country.

Of course there are psychological benefits - nobody doubts that anymore. The good vibes of the World Cup, with its drama and excitement and patriotism, have helped to unify South Africa, temporarily at least. Even after the elimination of South Africa's national soccer team last month, millions of fans threw their support to the last surviving African team, Ghana, allowing the high-spirited mood to continue for another week.









Across the country, there is a feeling of pride that the World Cup has been largely successful. The skeptics were proven wrong. Crime and violence have been minimal, the stadiums have been lauded, the crowds have been happy, the foreign visitors are impressed, the logistical challenges have been overcome and the nation is basking in global praise.

But is it worth $5-billion to produce a mood of national well-being? That's the question the critics are asking. When the World Cup ends Sunday, the euphoria will soon fade, but South Africa's harsh problems will remain: poverty; unemployment; poor housing; unofficial segregation and deep inequality. Millions of South Africans live in tin shacks without electricity or running water - and without hope of seeing the inside of the World Cup stadiums.

The government says the World Cup will add nearly $5-billion to the national economy this year, mostly through tourism and construction stimulus. It also estimates that the World Cup will create 130,000 jobs. Most of those jobs, however, are temporary. And the stadium and infrastructure costs have soared since the early estimates in 2004 when South Africa won the rights to the World Cup.

The gleaming new venues will be little use to the country when the World Cup is over. The national soccer league cannot fill the stadiums, and the rugby leagues don't want them. Most of the stadiums will be white elephants, sitting empty for the majority of the year, with millions of dollars in annual maintenance costs.

Amid the tsunami of World Cup hype that has swept over South Africa in the past few weeks there are people like Marcus Solomon who are voices of dissent.

One might expect Mr. Solomon to have been ecstatic when the world's biggest sporting event arrived in South Africa. After all, he has devoted much of his life to sports. As a political prisoner with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island for a decade, he was a leader of the famed Makana Football Association, which fought apartheid through soccer and produced many of today's South African leaders. After his release from prison, he campaigned for sports facilities for children across the country.

Yet today he condemns the World Cup as a multibillion-dollar boondoggle, a waste of precious resources and an insult to the poor. "There's all this hype in the media, selling it as God's gift to the poor, but it's for the elite," he says. "It's a crime to spend so much money on professional soccer."

Mr. Solomon is part of a small but significant backlash against the soccer extravaganza.

"Billions are being spent on new highways to the stadiums, but meanwhile there are no roads in the townships," Mr. Solomon said. "People are desperate to play soccer, but there are no facilities in the townships. They have to play on the side of the road, or wherever they can. This World Cup doesn't benefit anyone except a few soccer bosses."

The critics estimate that the $5-billion cost of the World Cup could have paid for improved housing for three million South Africans. Instead, they say, the government spending is financing a massive profit for FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, which expects to earn $3.2-billion in revenue from the World Cup this year.

Eunice Mthembu, founder of a community group in South Africa's most famous township, Soweto, says the World Cup is a diversion from the needs of ordinary people. She predicts a surge of street protests in the townships after the global tournament is over. "I don't see any improvements for the poor," she said. "The poor will be paying more for electricity and roads and stadiums."

She mocked the official World Cup slogan - "Feel It" - at a time when many township residents are facing electricity shortages in the freezing South African winter. "We don't feel it," she says. "How can we feel it in the darkness? When people come back from watching soccer, it's dark and cold in their homes."

Another concern is the power that South Africa has handed to FIFA. For the entire month of the World Cup, FIFA has been exempted from many of South Africa's normal laws and taxes. It enjoys a virtual monopoly over marketing, licensing and almost all economic activity anywhere near the tournament's 10 stadiums. "It's obscene to see how the government has turned over the country to FIFA," Mr. Solomon said.

The power of FIFA is symbolized in Nelson Mandela Square, a popular gathering spot in Sandton, the wealthiest suburb of Johannesburg. When the World Cup began, the square was handed over to Sony, an official FIFA sponsor, which erected a huge tent that filled almost the entire square - and blocked the statue of Mr. Mandela, which is now hemmed in and almost invisible.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

 

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