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South Africa – Will the World Cup bring economic change

World Cup development seems at odds with the inconvenient urban truth

Forget David Beckham’s fabled metatarsal, the most miraculous thing about this World Cup is that it is being held in South Africa. Yet though the country has embarked on a building and marketing programme of Herculean proportions, opinions are still sharply divided.

Will FIFA’s quadrennial juggernaut have the longed-for effect of inducing lasting economic and social transformation in a country still struggling with the toxic legacies of apartheid, poverty and inequality?

South African writer Rian Malan, a noted chronicler of his country’s contradictions, speaks for the sceptics. ‘FIFA has made a monkey out of South Africa,’ he recently told the UK’s Observer newspaper, ‘encouraging us to spend billions we don’t have, on stadiums we don’t need, in the absurd belief that we could recoup our losses by gouging football tourists whose willingness to come here was always in doubt.’ -

Malan articulates a sobering sense of equivocation that has underscored Africa’s first World Cup. During the run-up to the tournament, feel-good stories extolling the training and employment initiatives spawned by the massive 33 billion rand (£2.9 billion) construction programme duelled with darker tales of forced relocation. Usually this was either to make way for stadium development, or because the merest glimpse of township living conditions might give visitors the vapours. In its eagerness to attract football fans in the teeth of a global recession, South Africa has been afflicted by a kind of Potemkin village mentality. It’s still not easy to reconcile the exuberant, vuvuzela-toting crowds on FIFA’s posters with the edgier, more challenging realities of urban life.

Out of these seething tensions and well-appointed coffers have emerged ten stadiums which will form the tournament’s most obvious physical legacy. A mixture of new build and refurbishment, they are architecturally mixed. Johannesburg’s Soccer City, widely regarded as the spiritual home of South African football, has been weirdly remodelled to resemble a giant calabash (a traditional African cooking pot), while the swooping, spinal arch of Durban’s new Moses Mabhida stadium takes a well thumbed leaf out of the Santiago Calatrava playbook.

Perhaps the most memorable new building is the Cape Town Stadium at Green Point, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Designed by German architects GMP in collaboration with a consortium of local firms, it might appear typically Teutonic and laconic. However, with its surrounding precincts animated by informal markets and shops, it catalyses wider ambitions about how urban space is occupied and used. When the soccer circus leaves town, this elusive sense of civic connection and renewal will be the enduring test as to whether it was all worth it.

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