May 2010

Has South Africa Overcome Apartheid?

This article is dedicated to my dear friend Vince Binder. Vince tragically passed away last month. In the last conversation I had with him, over sushi and sake in Oakland, we discussed, among other things, the World Cup. While we both agreed this was an enormous step in the wake of Apartheid rule, Vince reminded me that the most heinous of the last vestiges of Apartheid economic policy would be within a stone’s throw of some of the new World Cup venues. As usual, my friend was right. To continue the fight against racism, their story not only must be told, it demands us to re-tell it. On Tuesday in Brooklyn, Vince was laid to rest. I’ll miss Vince forever. Hope this makes him proud.

With Fabio Capello’s 30 man preliminary roster springing more leaks in the British press than Nixon’s Watergate, and every other blog under the sun, including our very own Jon Levy, writing “Who will be on the US 30 man” posts a day before the rosters are due (@ midnight, Swiss time, whatever the hell that means), I thought I’d head in a different, darker direction. After all, when all is said and done, by late afternoon we’ll know via ESPN NEWS press conference what thirty men get the chance to wear the American shirt this summer. For some of these guys, it will be their only chance to wear the American shirt on the brightest stage. For all of them, it will mean something I can’t completely fathom. But it will happen. Even the Revolution in Rustenburg will come and go. Meanwhile, long after ESPN is done airing its inspiring World Cup Commercials (the Apartheid Ad—here, and the “Power of Ten” Ad, here, are particularly inspiring), long after the afternoon fluff pieces that precede and follow around-the-clock television coverage, long after the hot glow of the lights of the final July 11 in Johannesburg fades to the hushed glimmer of memory; life, in a manner hardly a one of us can completely fathom, will continue in post-Apartheid South Africa.

To be certain, when the ball is inevitably kicked between Mexico and South Africa on June 11, it will, as TYAC writer Keith Hickey noted, be a monumental achievement, not just in the history of South Africa, but in the history of sport, and more incredibly, in the history of a continent. A country shunned for nearly three decades will now host the World’s second-largest sporting event, and another great step forward in the march from the ashes of Apartheid will be taken. Much has been made of this step. Very little has been spoken about its dark underbelly, an underbelly paradoxically caused, in part, by the monumental achievement of hosting the World Cup itself.

In order to host the World Cup, the South African government has needed to take incredibly bold steps to renovate and rebuild various venues and to improve its tattered infrastructure. The country began preparing to host only about a decade after Apartheid ended in 1994. Needless to say, it was expected that there would be great infrastructure challenges and solving them would require a massive influx of foreign capital as well as a significant amount of government investment. When all was said and done, the South African government spent, or will spend, around 3 billion pounds, or about 4.5 billion dollars, hosting the tournament. If you don’t read between the lines, this might seem a small price to pay to host an event that at least one South African charged with leading the hosting committee called a “second liberation.” A cursory 30-second “Apartheid” television spot suggests this view. I’m certain at least one or two Bob Ley-inspired pieces during the tournament itself will rectify this view. Again, I admire and recognize the seminal moment hosting creates for the country. I admire it greatly, but a month before arriving in Johannesburg and seeing, I add the warning: Beware the rose-colored, western and revisionist lens of the tale.

We’ve heard these “We have overcome” stories in Africa before, and they too often disappoint, or worse, omit and put media blush on the realities of life on the ground. I fully endorse embracing hope. I just think hope should be “practical” hope, a hope infused with a view of how much work is left to be done. Sixteen years after Apartheid, there is so much more to do.

Take a look at the latest Human Development Index (HDI) figures. This is a UN measurement of education, life expectancy and standard of living. The host nation ranks #129, which is 19 spots below Gaza and the West Bank, among other nations. Forty-three percent of South Africans currently live on about two dollars a day. If that isn’t frightening enough, despite a favorable rating (higher than the world average, fourth in Sub-Saharan Africa) regarding its government spending and economic freedom, even while hosting the Cup, South Africa has seen life expectancy drop by thirteen years since the fall of Apartheid. What does that suggest? Well, to me, it suggests a combination of two things at play, both indicative of governmental mismanagement.

First, South Africa is losing the fight against AIDS, mostly due to getting behind early in the game thanks to the AIDS denialism of former President Thabo Mbeki, who, as the second post-Apartheid President of South Africa delayed distribution of readily available antiretroviral drugs in hospitals and openly questioned the link between HIV viruses and AIDS itself. His policies included a ban on the use of available antiretrovirals at public state hospitals, and the consequences have been horrific, 335,000 deaths between 2000-2005 and around 200,000 new, preventative infections of HIV. What made Mbeki’s denialism more tragic was his half-correct argument that income inequality and poverty were directly linked to high instances of the disease. This is true—so why deny those at the lowest income levels readily available, preventative drugs? There’s no way to tell—but the disease has decimated upward mobility by infecting a significant portion of the young population and checking upward economic mobility. You simply can’t work and advance while fighting a deadly disease, especially if you aren’t being properly treated.

Second, if South African economic freedom is improving, as the Heritage Foundation (hardly a paragon of liberal virtue) suggests, why do 42 percent of South Africans live on less than two dollars a day? That figure is up eight percent from the end of Apartheid, and is highly suggestive that South Africa, while spending billions on hosting the Cup, has seen sixteen years of post-Apartheid neoliberal economic policies create greater income inequality. In fact, a recent report by a well-respected South African economist ranks South Africa first on the list of nations with the widest rich-poor gap.

The theory was always that market-state policies would focus on low-deficits, low tax-rates for investors and low-inflation first. This would attract foreign investment and coupled with government-support would generate growth that would trickle down to the South African poor. While there is no question that the policies worked to jump-start the highest levels of the economy, the “Trickle Down” never happened. The World Cup was supposed to jump-start that process by creating short-term technical jobs in the construction and tourism sectors of the economy that could be accessed by the underclass. The problem is that these jobs will be over by the end of the Cup and there hasn’t been a great deal of feel-good investment to fill in the longer term gaps. As such, South Africa’s attritional forty-percent unemployment rate is likely to achieve a zero-sum decrease as a result of the Cup and many scholars think the actual payoff to the people of hosting the event, beyond a metaphor of “liberation”, will be essentially nothing.

Unfortunately, the story gets worse before it gets better. In the post-Apartheid world, increasing income inequality has resulted in the ghettoization of South Africa, a situation comparable, but worse than, the gentrification of American urban areas such as Detroit and New Orleans in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Segregation of course was part and parcel of Apartheid government strategy, but class mobility and integration have not been the result, in anything outside of a legal and technical sense, of the post-Apartheid South African world. South African’s most poor people have long lived in areas of larger cities called “shantytowns”, which are essentially shack-ridden areas with very little running water, massive overpopulation and crime, high disease rates and in many cases, no electricity. The predominantly black governments in the wake of Apartheid made sweeping condemnations and promises to act to turn the tide of the misery involved in shantytown life. Without question, it is true that the policies of Apartheid are what established the shantytowns in the first place. The problem is that the economic policies since the fall of Apartheid have worsened the problem.

Outside Pretoria, where the U.S. will play Algeria in their final group match on June 23, a shantytown sits on a hillside only a kilometer or so from the newly-refurbished Versfeld Stadium. Similar shantytowns appear close to stadiums in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Not only are these shantytowns the sites of the most abject poverty imaginable, they are the sites of frequent (and often violent) protest against governmental economic policy, and worse, the sites of the highest-incidents of crime and disease. Many of the protesters challenge the view of the tournament as a “second liberation”, arguing that the government has put hosting and spending inconceivable amounts of money to do so successfully far above the national welfare and the poor on the governmental “priority list.” More promises to counter shanty life have been the response of the South African leadership thus far, the most recent coming from President Jacob Zuma, who visited a shantytown in Johannesburg last month and vowed that the government would “start work” to correct the inequalities and horrors of shanty life.

Johannesburg shanty residents were skeptical—noting that Zuma, who brought toilets to the shantytown and vowed to get clean, running water online, was missing the point. People need land, houses without common walls, and jobs—not toilets, one cynical citizen claimed. It’s hard not to side with that citizen’s point-of-view. After all, renovation of the stadiums and various World Cup beautification projects, designed to give teeth to South African revival in the wake of Apartheid imagery during coverage of the Cup, had its own consequences. Many shanty residents were forced to evacuate their homes and move further into the shantytowns. The urban poor not living in shanties were evicted and held in “temporary transit camps” during construction in some areas. Most horrifying, during the Preliminary draw, homeless children were removed from the streets and held in Westville Prison outside of Durban. Charged with petty crimes such as loitering, and given fines they had no chance of paying, some were held as many as ninety days before release.

All this in the name of beautification and “second-liberation”? All this in the name of what Zuma calls “the greatest marketing opportunity” in the history of South Africa? Pardon me if I’m a bit skeptical. Pardon me if I’m a bit wary of a country with a racist past littered with violent exclusion and forced removals thinks it okay to utilize the same tactics to put on a happy face for the rest of the world. Pardon me if I’m a bit concerned about “exclusion zones”, which are essentially rules about who among the South African citizenry is given access to particular areas during the World Cup. I’ve seen that type of governmental policy in a history book before, and it makes my stomach turn.

Pardon me if I’m a bit offended that Coca-Cola, one of the last foreign investors to leave South Africa during Apartheid, is rewarded with naming rights to the crown jewel stadium, the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. It isn’t just American hypocrisy that the South African government is ignoring in a self-serving manner either– Barclay’s didn’t disinvest in South African Apartheid —and don’t for a second believe they won’t be advertising the EPL throughout the world this summer, and writing checks that benefit the post-Apartheid government while doing it. So pardon me, for a moment, if I’m not fully prepared to swallow a hope sandwich.

I can’t imagine life in a shantytown, and I’m not certain seeing one will make it any easier to conceptualize that pain or misery. On some level, it is impossible to imagine and feel the pain of others. We like to think we do but we don’t. It is a country we’ve no passport for, and no right of entry. That said, Vince and I always believed, always thought, always hoped, that we would stand up and speak up, that we would address racism, and inequality, in any form, when we saw it. I don’t think either of us has always succeeded in this endeavor. We’ve tried, no doubt. And that’s all I’m hoping to do now. As the map turns to mid-May, let’s keep this in mind, keep the abject living just minutes away from where the magic will happen this June, in our mind and memory, and let’s give them voice, a narrative—for voice to suffering, to their story—that’s a powerful gift.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at or @nwb_USMNT.

Neil W. Blackmon