World Cup a triumph, now South Africa must keep its head

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Vuvuzela  The vuvuzelas have finally quietened; 64 games, three million spectators, one million visitors and 40 billion rand (A$6 billion) later, the World Cup has been proclaimed a triumph. South Africa feels rehabilitated in the world's eyes while Spain, without the baggage of having eliminated an African team in dubious manner, are regarded as worthy winners.

But it seems not all South Africans were winners. While the economy has received a boost from the extra tourists and the legacy of new infrastructure, FIFA's strict rules concerning the marketing of its products left many informal street traders excluded from their traditional vending sites near stadiums and fan venues. With an official unemployment rate of 25 per cent (a figure that some estimate could be as high as 40 per cent), these informal businesses form a refuge for those unable to find steady work. For them the World Cup was a mixed blessing.

Another group who have not benefited from the World Cup are the approximately 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers who have sought refuge for varying reasons in South Africa in the past few years.

There have been persistent and intensifying rumours of xenophobic attacks aimed at getting these people and other migrants out of the townships and informal settlements where they have set up businesses and homes. Some refugees reported being refused service at local primary care clinics, told by staff that they wouldn't be around in a month's time anyway. Others reported similar comments from police, and from others in the community.

In one informal settlement Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) staff were asked to supply money to a proposed neighbourhood watch to protect local foreign shopkeepers. The implication was that, if we didn't, those shopkeepers would be in grave danger, probably from the very people 'volunteering' for the watch.

In the last six weeks the main road to Zimbabwe has seen a steady procession of bakkies and buses laden with all kinds of household goods as people reacted to the rumours and threats that they would be kicked out as soon as the World Cup was over. Most headed home to almost certain hunger and poverty.

All are afraid of a repeat of the May 2008 xenophobic attacks that left 62 people dead and 100,000 displaced. Most feel that if there is a repeat of such events, South Africa's huge investment in hosting the World Cup, and the good will that it has brought to nationals and visitors alike, will be largely squandered.

The police minister, Nathi Mthetwa, claims that the flight of Zimbabweans is a normal course of events marking the end of the seasonal labour season. But his own government was sufficiently concerned to convene an Inter-ministerial Committee — which he heads — to look at the phenomenon, while at the same time ordering its army to stand by in case of outbreaks.

Community negotiations have begun in many settlements, some brokered by the government, others by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and NGOs such as JRS. At the same time the police, acting on intelligence, have been proactively making arrests in some areas.

Such measures demonstrate that South Africa is approaching some of its problems with greater maturity than two years ago. It became clear then that xenophobia South African style was not the result in the first place of a hatred of foreigners. Rather it was the opportunistic grab for political and economic power at a local level in communities that remain desperately poor and isolated from the political discourse.

Then, would-be perpetrators felt they could act with impunity. Lack of documentation of many 'foreigners', the difficulty of following cases up, the perceived ambivalence of the police force, and an atmosphere of fear that prevented witnesses from coming forward all contributed to this sense of unaccountability.

Now, the combination of wide media coverage, some early police response and the consciousness that the world is looking has left at least some refugees feeling safer than they did two years ago.

In these days after the World Cup final there has been some looting but fortunately no displacement as yet. But the very presence of these threats points to another reality in South Africa, one that rarely appeared in World Cup coverage. Like many emerging societies South Africa is a long way from being a truly inclusive society. But the last month has demonstrated it has made huge strides. It is vital that this progress not be undermined now.

David HoldcroftDavid Holdcroft SJ is Regional Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Southern Africa.


Topic tags: David Holdcroft, South Africa, World Cup, Nathi Mthetwa



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Thank you David for sharing first-hand knowledge of lives of the poor in South Africa. I hope that Australia will share more of its wealth with those people.

Ray O'Donoghue | 14 July 2010  

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