“Didier Drogba is just over there, but what does that do to help me?” As the harmonious discord of the vuvuzela imbues the glossy stadiums swathed in the sickening glow of African democratic pseudo-success, South Africa’s reality is laden with mass poverty, unemployment, inequality, crime and death. The World Cup simply acts as a diversion, fixing a shameless, unflinching barrier in front of the harsh actualities of day-to-day life. We flock to the Rainbow Nation in a forced migration of millions who will leave as quickly as they came; money is doubtless injected but where does it go?
The tournament has the opportunity to make a difference. Yet it doesn’t. Images of laughing, smiling African children adorn our television screens, as though the lure of the dancing pixels can allay our anxieties about their reality. How I wish that this World Cup was ameliorating global society in the way it so obviously could; how I wish that the disquieting façade of Africa that is being portrayed was, in fact, the truth; how I wish that I could just block out the mournful drone of the vuvuzela that speaks volumes for a strife-stricken people.
But then I return to facts. They stand there, cold, rigid, and resolute, like endless bricks in an eternally unyielding wall. One in every four South Africans is unemployed; 50% of the population lives below the poverty line (a proportion that rises to 71% in rural areas); an astounding 50 murders take place every day; the Gini Index calculates that South Africa has the second most imbalanced distribution of riches in the world; 5.7 million people were suffering from HIV/AIDS in South Africa in 2009, enough to fill the Soccer City stadium 60 times over; and, in 2008, over a quarter of a million died of the disease.
For me, the vuvuzela’s interminable whine is neither a sound of joy nor one that infuriates; it is a despondent cry for help. Just beneath the surface, the South African mask of happiness recedes to reveal a melancholy survey of human anguish. Veronica Mngoma is 35 years old. She has been diagnosed with AIDS. She had a chance, the prospect of a prolonged life – a better life. Yet nothing was done. Doctors refused to treat her, they didn’t even tell her that they could; she earned too little money to pay for the required drugs, and it would have been too pitiless to offer false hope. Now, she limps forward excruciatingly and a mass of yellow swellings emerges from her widening mouth that rests limply on a drawn face, as she murmurs with a cracked voice: “I worry about my children”.
She endures, and do we do anything about it? No. Does money go to the men, unemployed men who struggle to feed their families? No. Does it go to the hungry children, children who starve in festering townships? No. The profits from the competition are split between FIFA, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Emirates, Sony, Hyundai, Visa, Castrol Oil, Continental, McDonalds, YingLi Soldar and Mahindra Satyam, not to mention BP, Telkom and the nation’s biggest bank, FNB. I could go on listing unworthy benefactors for this entire article. The primary culprit, FIFA, made $1.8 billion at the last World Cup, more than enough to pay for Mngoma – and millions of others like her – to have access to treatment. The winning team is given almost $300 million, effectively swatting away the lives of countless men, women and children perfunctorily, as though their suffering is merely an inconvenience.
Tumi Motsoana is 29 and unemployed, living in Sharpeville. He, like many of the silenced South African people, raises the question: “2010 is here, but what am I going to get?” The streets of the Rainbow Nation’s townships are laced with the palpable stench of poverty and inequality. A friend of Tumi’s, Vusi, astutely notes that “the World Cup is just more of the same. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” And with that, Vusi identifies the main perfidy. Out of the predicted $12.4 billion profit for the country itself, how much will actually go to those who so blatantly need aid?
The truly saddening fact is that the arrival of the beautiful game on African soil could really do a lot of good. Rather than forcing a political veneer over the genuine, poverty-ravaged realities of South Africa, covering them up to a global audience to portray a nation reaping the rewards of democracy, the World Cup should bring prosperity, hope and much-needed aid. Following a tour of the country in 2008, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane claimed that it was in “a state of emergency”, one that could prove damaging to future generations. He commented on the “unthinkable” nature of large sums of money being spent on the competition while so many starve in the streets.
Today, we must become a great beacon of hope to the world; we must not fail to look past the glimmering façade that is shown to us, into the troubled townships; and we must not blindly accept that this World Cup is just about the football. It can achieve so much more. Every day that this tournament is played, 150 South African babies will be born with HIV. Every day, 970 adults will be infected with the disease. And every day, 725 people will die from AIDS. And we – and the sponsors earning millions of dollars – will do nothing. If the thought of 22 men kicking a ball across a pitch pales into insignificance compared to that, you’re a normal human being.
As foreign fans sit comfortably in seats that most South African citizens cannot even afford, supping on Budweiser and Coca-Cola to their heart’s content, Veronica is left to die in her suffering, Tumi and Vusi are left feeling injustice, and an entire people’s struggles are masked by a cheering crowd in a colossal stadium whose alienist presence sits disquietingly on a backdrop of deteriorating townships. And as the ball is tediously kicked across the grass, we should feel a pang of guilt rising up within us, accompanied by a call for action, a call to provide necessary respite to South Africa’s Sisyphean strife.