In the Shadow of the World Cup

The tournament’s hidden cost is thousands of forcefully evicted slum dwellers

On Jul. 11, Nelson Mandela will pass the gold-plated World Cup trophy to the new soccer world champion at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, as a billion sets of eyes and ears from every corner of the globe are glued to television screens and radios. The international sports media will call it the final day of a tournament that represents South Africa’s modernism and rapid, inspirational distancing from its torrential past of racial and economic inequalities. They will only be half right.

The whole truth would become clearer if the cameras peeled away from the field and focused in on the cramped shacks of the informal settlements on the outskirts of the city. It would be clearer if the broadcasters passed their mikes to the shacks’ inhabitants, thousands of whom were forcefully removed from their dwellings in the city in order to make the area around the stadium look more developed and wealthy. Many people will wait in these euphemistic “transitional relocation camps” for up to 10 years. One of these individuals summed up their resentment for the government, lamenting, “They want to make a good impression for the foreigners coming. We are like insects to them—like flies.”

The government has continually promised the residents of these camps real homes away from the cities, yet there are no homes. In all 10 cities hosting world cup games, these forced evictions to nowhere have affected tens of thousands of people. This brutal policy of cleaning up for the World Cup by removing citizens from their homes with the empty promise of alternative housing is an overt human rights violation that should no longer be ignored by the world.

Unfortunately, the World Cup evictions are a pittance in comparison to the roughly 500,000 people that have been evicted from their homes in the service of national development projects, since the advent of truly representative democracy in 1994. South Africa’s constitution defines housing as a human right, but as much as a quarter of South Africa’s population live in “shack dwellings” where large families live in cramped squalor underneath thin scrap metal with intermittent access to clean water and power. To make matters worse, the Slums Act, passed in 2006, provided legal authority to sentence those who resist eviction by up to five years in prison. Although most of these evictions occur for shack dwellings in which there are significant health and security risks it is specious for the government to not provide alternative housing—while it finances the building of stadiums.

Opponents argue, with some success, that the efforts surrounding the World Cup will have long-term benefits for the poor. The tournament will create an estimated 415,000 jobs, and although there have been complaints, and even strikes, over low wages, it is undeniable that those jobs hold immeasurable value in a nation with unemployment hovering around 25 percent Although South Africa will experience short-term losses from the World Cup, it is not unreasonable to predict that the renovated airports, roads, and hotels will be a catalyst for growth into the future. Furthermore, the nearly $200 million spent on security training and equipment cannot hurt in a nation where approximately 50 murders and nearly 100 reported instances of rape occur every day.

Nevertheless, it’s uncertain how much of the World Cup’s revenue will trickle down to the very poor. South Africa already has large economic inequalities that have only widened in the last decade. There are indications that the World Cup will only serve to deepen those inequalities. For instance, informal traders and street vendors, who are significant sources of wealth for the South African poor, are being restricted from trading in many cities’ commercial areas during the World Cup. All in all, the World Cup will constitute a contribution of less than one percent of South Africa’s GDP, which is far below the desired six to seven percent.

Although the overall benefits of the World Cup may reach the poor eventually, the forced eviction of citizens under the deceit of alternative housing is undeniably barbaric and unacceptable in the modern era. Doing it under the pretense of cleansing the country’s image for an international event makes it a particularly inhumane and insensitive act. The international community’s complicity in the evictions calls into question our empathy and integrity as we enjoy the entertainment, willingly blind to the cost.

Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Mower Hall.