Thursday, June 17, 2010

Furthering the Interests of Facinorous Aristocrats

Nothing sells like a feel good story. Throw in sports and you've got a sure winner, I mean how else could Sandra Bullock win an Oscar? From the moment FIFA (Furthering the Interests of Facinorous Aristocrats) president Sepp Blatter revealed to the world that South Africa would host the ongoing World Cup 2010 there was always going to be another feel good story sold to the world. This time featuring a nation that had risen from the ashes of apartheid twenty years earlier and was ready to trumpet to the world the glorious transformation its society had achieved thanks to equality and democracy. The blinding glare reflecting from the stadiums and the mind numbing blare of the vuvuzelas Yet if one is able to shade their eyes from the blinding glare reflecting from the shiny new stadiums and shut out the mind numbing blare of the vuvuzelas and look beneath the surface

Staging the World Cup in South Africa is a big deal. It is seen by many as Africa's tournament as 2010 marks the first time the biggest sporting event in the world has been played on the continent. Nations from around the world are represented, 32 of them from Algeria to Uruguay and all points in between. The road to qualification was littered with upsets and controversy seeing teams like 105th ranked North Korea make it, the hand of Henry knocking out the Irish and even coming close to igniting a regional war. There's already been enough stories coming out of the tournament to keep our brains buzzing, from BP drawing but not plugging the Stars and Stripes , the DPRK almost pulling out what would've been an actually exciting tie with Brazil, pre-tourny favorite Spain losing to Switzerland and an official ball that is somehow too... round. Yet the dominant theme will continue to be the feel good story of how South Africa has gone from apartheid blacklisting to center stage instead of how it became the conduit through which the world's premiere sporting event is funneling profits back to Geneva.

From its birth in 1930, the World Cup had see-sawed back and forth between Europe and the Americas. Back in 1994 the idea of Africa hosting such an event was seen as a pipe-dream. With South Korea and Japan's co-hosting in 2002, the possibilities suddenly expanded. Of course it all came down to money, "Does Africa have the resources to stage an event of such enormity", queried the chairman of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Local Organising Committee South Africa (OC), Irvin Khoza in 1994. After narrowly losing out in the voting for the 2006 event, the continent was handed the next tournament as FIFA announced that it would rotate the tournament between football confederations. As a result, the next cup would be held in Africa. Handed? What up? Well, you see there was a new president of FIFA elected between the two votes, with Sepp Blatter taking his predecessors corrupt ways to new extremes. He was able to secure the presidency to send the tournament to Africa in exchange for a couple of dozen envelopes stuffed with $50,000 picked up in a hotel room in Paris. Since then, Blatter has managed to surround himself with an organization rivaling the evil of the likes of BP or Sedes Sacrorum,

So what? Well, while we are sold the feel good vibe of the Rainbow Nation that emerged from the chains of apartheid, the fact is most of the country has simply traded one kind of bondage for another. Instead of a Black-White divide, it's now the somehow politically correct ever-expanding Poor-Rich split. The Gini coefficient (graph fans here, number here), which is the most common measurement of income inequality, with 0 representing a true socialistic paradise of perfectly equal income and 1 being the opposite extreme, has increased from 0.6 to almost 0.7 since the end of apartheid, making South Africa the most unequal country in the world. What? Yep, there is more inequality thanks to the democratic capitalism illusion, a model of wealth extraction perfected from South American to the East Indies. I used to think the US was bad at around 0.45 or Singapore, but, 0.7, really? Oh, yeah, the whole township thing hasn't improved and will in fact get worse thanks to the World Cup. If you think that the $6 billion spent on stadiums and infrastructure has been anything but a multiplier effect of this distribution you are deluded.

Sure, there's been some stadia, roads, an airport and a new shiny train built, but the stadiums were white elephants before being built, the airport expansion unnecessary and the rail link an overpriced toy. The stadiums may be the most egregious offense, so I'll save a paragraph for them, amazing considering the sums sucked out of future South African taxpayers for other useless novelties. The new $1.1 billion King Shaka airport in Durban more than doubled its original cost estimate to replace an airport that had excess capacity through 2017. The Gautrain rapid rail costs riders five times the originally announced price as cost overruns saw the cost of the Johannesburg-Pretoria commuter line make even those doublings from estimate to true costs we're so used to look reasonable. Originally priced at 3.5 to 4 billion rand in 2000, it may have cost as much as 35 billion, but may have 'only' cost 25 billion, around $3.7 billion. All the construction provided some temporary employment for the workers but fistfuls of kickbacks for the developers.

Five new stadiums were built, a couple of which may never be used again, while five were refurbished. If you're all football smart and stuff you should now be asking why ten stadiums were necessary when there are only eight groups. Wait, 1,2,3. Now, your saying "ooooooooooh, the kickbacks." Cape Town already had a perfectly good stadium, but it only took a little FIFA arm twisting to convince organizers a brand new stadium would look better on TV. The result, the architecturally stunning Green Point. Costs: $580 million, skyrocketing rents that have pushed out locals, and forced relocations for those residents who might upset the tourist to the concentration camp known as Blikkiesdorp AKA "Tin Can Town". Um, District 9 and all that. Sorry for saying it out loud, but if you haven't seen the tin can settlements the government considers an improvement over the townships, well, you simply need to look at pictures and watch the movie. Cape Town's other venue, Athlone, got a $53 million facelift so that they could evict people to build a car park.

Not bad enough for you? Ok, how about murder? As many as seven people with knowledge or connection to the corrupt tender process for constructing parts of the new stadium near Nelspruit near the Mozambique border have been killed. Yet, once again, the stadium is visually striking with gantries and buttresses that hold up the roof and the stands made to look like giant giraffes, thus its "giraffe stadium" moniker. Maybe due to this, once again, the locals who are paying the price for the enrichment of a select few were tricked into supporting a process that is robbing their future. A primary school and a high school we're bulldozed in 2007 with the students transferred to airless prefabricated classrooms. Promised water mains, electricity, proper housing and a tar road to match the building of the stadium, the locals have received nothing. Literally, as after the four World Cup matches are played, the stadium will sit idle, with no local team to even use the stadium. Durban's new $450 million stadium is named after anti-apartheid activist and hero Moses Mabhida, but perhaps PW Botha may have been more appropriate. This is because an 800 metre perimeter must be enforced around the stadium, along with all other official venues, within which only large sponsors are allowed to sell their wares. That means the very people who are normally so prominent in South Africa's busy streetscapes have little chance of benefitting greatly from the World Cup. It's so frustrating to see barriers such as these thrown up which perpetuate the inequalities between the haves and have-nots.

With such tension bubbling just under the surface it therefore comes as no surprise South Africa, which boasts the second highest murder rate in the world, has come under intense scrutiny for their security arrangements. The Togo travesty next door in Angola during the most recent African Cup of nations didn't help while the media did their part in turning up the stupid factor, propagating fear stories of machete attacks and earthquakes. Oh oh, better herd the street kids into prisons so the cameras don't catch a glimpse of poverty. Why solve the structural problems when you can just buy guns, you know, oppression of the weak by the strong seems to be the only way to maintain the peace. Well, the people coulda been given some work I guess. Perhaps manufacturing the souvenirs, playing the music and providing some local cuisine. But they weren't. The official mascot was produced in China, the official song provided by Colombia's Shakira and the official restaurant is McDonald's.

Well, at least the locals have a fair chance to experience the greatest sporting event in the world live while being played in their backyards. Well, not really seeing as most of the continent is trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide and only those with internet connections were able to buy tickets. Africa's tournament? Only 11,000 Africans bought about 36,000 of the 3 million tickets sold outside of South Africa. If people protest this kinda of unfairness there's enough cops to put them down quickly though as 41,000 police officers are being deployed for World Cup security and opening 56 special courts to quickly try the accused. Um, but eventually the people notice that they're not being given a fair shake, right? So, what happens when those paid to protect those that are making the decisions decide they aren't happy seeing their rights trampled on? In Durban after the German thrashing of Australia, security guards were protesting in just such a way when police were called in to quell the unrest. The following day, Monday, the decision was made to hand over security duties to the police in both Cape Town and Durban.

Well, at least the RSA will get a bit of revenue to pay all these bills, whew. What's that you say? It's FIFA that gets all the TV contract revenue along with the cash from the sponsorship deals. Oh, and they have a tax exemption worked out with the government on all the crap sold in the tourist zones to boot. South African foreign debt has now ballooned to over $80 billion so the Mail and Guardian newspaper took the government to court to force them to reveal the secret deal worked out with Pretoria that exempts FIFA from exchange control regulations. So, now we know that not only will all the $2.5 billion profit zip back to Zurich but all the official sponsors and partners get to keep all their booty as well. Did we mention many of these companies are being sued in the US through the Alien Tort Claims Act as they did business with the apartheid regime? Oh, well, they did, hello Coca-Cola. Shame on you for thinking the Israelis were the only people unethical enough to do business with the apartheid regime. After all, what are a few nuclear warheads among racists? If you are one of the FIFA chosen ones, all's good but the marketing gestapo will even throw hot chicks wearing short skirts in jail for sitting in the stands together if they're wearing the wrong beer's colors. Imagine what they'd do with a non-McDonald's ice-cream vendor.

Let's review. FIFA makes a $2.5 billion profit for the year, paying an unknown amount to the president who arranged to have South Africa host the World Cup. South Africans are left with a legacy of debt for stadiums they don't need while the locals are virtually shut out of any chance to partake in the games either economically or through attendance. If we took off the blinders and called FIFA what they really are, the mafia, we would be able to see how they are able to seal one-sided agreements that are nothing but a licence to print money. While South Africa shoulders the cost of new stadia and infrastructure, they don't get to share in on television, marketing or ticketing. Oh, and FIFA earnings are protected by a tax bubble, meaning they'll pay little tax so will be able to bring back all their profits straight to Switzerland. If only the renovators tasked with Blatter's demand for an "African-themed bathroom" in his suite in Johannesburg's most luxurious hotel had fulfilled his wish to the letter. By removing the running water and installing the pail of choice the Emperor's kind has forced on most Africans ol' Sepp may have learned something about empathy, something the world and particularly Brazil would appreciate, seeing as he's setting himself up to remain president for life.

What about the politicians? How did this happen? What about Nelson Mandela? Yes, the figure of Mandela was instrumental in both bringing down the apartheid regime and bringing the World Cup to South Africa, but unfortunately the next couple president's haven't really kept the momentum. Since the end of apartheid in 1990, life expectancy in South Africa has fallen by 13 years to 51. This is only partially attributable to the leadership's AIDS denialism as evidenced by the fact they have even fallen behind Rwanda.Yeah, Thabo Mbeki, president from 1999 to 2008 and so in charge while the tournament contracts were being signed, also signed the death sentence order for over 300,000 people by refusing to accept medical evidence that AIDS is caused by a virus. Finally replaced by the ANC, the party showed its ineptness by picking Jacob Zuma a man who would most likely be in jail today for rape if he hadn't been the ANC's deputy-president. Whatever, rape a girl, rape a nation. At least he knew to shower after to avoid getting HIV, maybe he learned the trick from one of his wives, five total, three current!?! Real poster boys for the glories of democracy. It was Mandela that Sepp Bladder knew he could sell the world even if he couldn't get Mandela to the opening ceremony as God Car took his great-granddaughter away the night before the big event.

The World Cup will be remembered by some for the incessant sound of the fans blowing their vuvuzelas, their monotonous clamour not only drowning out the sound of cheers and chants but also serving as a white noise that prevents the people from thinking about the facts. Of course it's facts they are mostly missing as press accreditation with FIFA hangs on a pledge not to throw the World Cup "into disrepute" while reporting about the event at the risk of being banned. All of this has been seen before in many places under different guises though if people could just learn to pay attention. Greece hosting the 2000 Olympics saw the claws of capitalism help the Hellenic Republic jump off the deep end of debt. A foreign power as often as not simply carries an acronym these days, from the IOC to FIFA to the IMF, extracting rents at the expense of the weaker. Huh, not much difference than the domination of South America by Spain et al from the 15th century on either. Just as the encomenderos applied the whips to the black slaves around the likes of the Cerro Rico Potosi to extract silver centuries ago, the FIFA's of the world are still doing the same using more marketing friendly methods in the name of capitalism. Sorry, just started reading Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, better stop now and save that story of rape and pillage for another day. Predictions? Winners? Let's stay with the orange theme and take the perpetually under-performing Dutch squad to win. Losers? Well, that's easy, the team that didn't even get a chance to play again, the poor who will foot the bill.