South Africa after the World Cup

I wish you could have come with me yesterday as I ran through the delightful district of Westcliff, one of the richest square miles in Africa. The sun was taking the chill off the winter morning. The sky was blue. The urban forest of Johannesburg was a winter symphony of brown and green and gold.

Among the trees, on either side of the well-kept street, I passed the kinds of homes you normally associate with Beverly Hills. Here was the honey-stoned palazzo of a diamond executive. There was the schloss of the most successful boob-job exponent in the neighbourhood.

Each villa was the size of a country club, and through every set of gates you could see the carob-shaded tennis court or the ultramarine ping of the sunlight on the pool. Every property overtly proclaimed the determination of the haves to resist the depredations of the have-nots. Great brown Rhodesian ridgebacks snuffled behind the electric fences. Chubb security vans cruised quietly up and down. Fixed to the wall beside virtually every nine-foot impregnable gate was a sign announcing that any intruder would be met with an “Armed Response”.

I wish you could have been there, to soak up the splendour of the lives of the affluent Johannesburg professionals. Then I wish you could have come with me to another neighbourhood, a township called Cape Flats, nor far from Cape Town. Then you would have understood the vast economic disparity of South Africa – the wealth gap that helps to prompt the security fences of Westcliff.

Here there was no tarmac on the streets. No one had cleared up the piles of rubbish. No one had painted the battered grey breeze blocks of the flats or mended the panes in the washing-hung windows. Of the hordes of unwashed kids who came out to compete for our presents – badges and trinkets – hardly any seemed fluent in English.

A nice one-eyed woman called Mary took us in to see her flat, and though she was immensely proud of her two chipped-eared china dogs, and though her lino floor shone with mopping, she had almost none of the amenities that are taken for granted by the poorest families in modern Britain.

She had no hot water. She had no cooker except for a couple of electric rings. She had no system of heating or air conditioning, and though Mary and her family were avidly following the World Cup, they were listening to the commentary on a crackling old radio. They had no television, and nor did any of the neighbours.

Above all, she had no job, and neither did her husband. It was years since he had last worked as an upholsterer for motor cars, and the same applied to all the hundreds of other men and women who swarmed out of their flats to welcome the delegation from London.

They had no job, and no hope of a job – and yet these people, Mary and her neighbours, were lucky by the standards of many in South Africa. Mary lives in breeze-block luxury compared with the inhabitants of the “informal settlements” – shantytowns to you and me – of which there are 230 in the vicinity of Cape Town alone, providing homes to about 500,000 people in a population of 3.5 million.

It is when you have such inequality, and such grinding poverty, you cannot be surprised that some pessimists have asked whether it was sensible for South Africa to take on the difficulty and expense of hosting the World Cup. That is why I have spent the past few days posing the legacy question to just about everyone I have met.

What happens on July 12, after the captain of the winning team has waved the Jules Rimet trophy in his sweaty palm? What will people say when the last fan has traipsed home and the last journalist has composed his last philippic against his defeated national team and when the last vuvuzela has parped its last melancholy parp? What will this World Cup leave for South Africa?

I have asked barmen and journalists and politicians such as the remarkable Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape province. I have ended up feeling like those Monty Python characters who were so foolish as to question the benefits of the Roman Empire. The World Cup not only gave jobs and skills and hope to thousands of local people.

The tournament gave an absolute deadline to South Africa for the introduction and improvement of all kinds of infrastructure – not just sports grounds, but roads and bridges and airports and bus lanes that would otherwise not have been built and which will benefit the country for decades to come. Above all, the World Cup has given this country something intangible but priceless: a deep sense of pride that it has taken on something difficult and done it well.

When they look at themselves in the approving mirror of world opinion, South Africans of every race agree that the first African World Cup is a joyous success, and that success breeds confidence. The rand is rising. South Africans who left for Australia or Canada are starting to return to a country whose banking system largely escaped the recent crisis.

The sheer number of visitors – about half a million – will help to open the eyes of the world to South Africa and its potential for trade and investment; and get this – crime, the crime that has been supposed to be one of the drawbacks of living here, is down 90 per cent in central Cape Town, and there has not been a single serious incident of crime or violence in any of the fan parks.

Of course there will be disappointments, and no one could pretend that the World Cup will solve the economic or political problems of the country. But it offers a sense of unity and confidence to a place with a tragic past. It should help to build the taxpayer base that is so essential to narrowing the wealth gap.

It gives potential wealth creators at least some of the infrastructure they need. Fifa took an inspired decision to give the World Cup to South Africa, and South Africa has responded brilliantly.

This column first appeared here

19 thoughts on “South Africa after the World Cup”

  1. Great report Boris! Makes F.I.F.A.’s hysterical over reaction over the Bavaria Beer orange dresses affair seem even more obscene. I’m a Scot who would actually like to see England lift the trophy but could there possibly be a greater contrast than the lives of privilege of the English Team’s prima donnas and the poverty you so movingly write about? P.S., I really DO want to see England win it. Maybe a tour round those townships would provide the necessary motivation.

  2. It’s all very well saying “I wish you could have come with me…” You only had to ask. I would have sat next to you on the aeroplane and regaled you with stories to make your hair curl. I would have introduced you as my backward cousin to all of the people that we encountered. We would have had such a good time. So stop with all this “I wish” piffle, and remember to invite me ahead of the trip next time.

    I doubt very much whether the homeless and the poor will be the recipients of the growth of wealth that you describe. It is not often the case that those at the bottom benefit from the increased wealth of the rich. That’s the way capitalism is, Boris. Don’t try to tell us otherwise.

    If you see Frank Lampard over there, tell him that I said he’s a cretin. Thank you.

  3. Brilliant post, circus monkey, well said. Our football divas are as out of the touch as the stars of Harry Potter who upbraided our Mayor for saying he wished the Harry Potter theme park was in London.

    Insulated from the credit crunch by massive salaries, it did not occur to them to think of all the parents who were heart broken because they could not afford to take their kids to Florida.

    I hope Boris is right and there will be some knock-on good effect from the World Cup for the poor.

  4. Interesting, especially from Boris Johnson.

    Johnson’s campaign team rejected suggestions that their candidate might be prejudiced, insisting that he “loathes racism in all its forms”. However, journalist Rod Liddle said that Johnson has used the word “piccaninnies” on another occasion to refer to black Africans.[116] Greater London analyst and director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, Dr. Tony Travers, has written that “There is no way to dress up expressions such as “piccaninnies'” and “watermelon smiles” to take them within a million miles of acceptable.”

  5. I was in the Western Cape about seven years ago and, although never a guest in shanty towns, astonished that the country had not succumbed already to civil war.  How long, I asked almost every-one I met, will the blacks and even the coloured accept their lot and what appeared to me to be little improvement in their standard of living ?

    A fortiori to-day — a decade and a half after the formal abolition of apartheid — one wonders what it is (apart from Chubb security) that keeps ordinary Africans from their European neighbours’ throats and is not really surprised to hear reports of violence against Afrikaner farmers (Boere), now in the unenviable position of the erstwhile farmers of Southern Rhodesia.

    Let us hope that peace prevails long enough for the economic benefits described by the Mayor to reach the populace.  The first thing the country needs to do is to ramp up her nuclear generation of power, so that electricity — and, following on from that, water — can be brought to the shanty towns.


  6. Circus Monkey; as another Scot, may I wholeheartedly endorse
    your support of England in this World Cup. If only the English players would wholeheartedly support their supporters, they might still be in the World Cup next week.

  7. I have an idea to pay for national debt – how about this??

    if people sacrifice their holiday expenses overseas, just for one year, and spend the money instead in local places, I estimate the amount of money saved for the country and booming local businesses will be over 20 billion pounds!! the unwanted consequences for the British Airways can be compensated by the government!!

  8. First of all: at least they have their freedom, they live in a free country.

    Secondly: you will never be able to make sure every body in this world live in comfort like you do. Another thing is if you were born into poverty, you don’t realise it. Likewise, if you were born into wealth, you don’t realise it. I doubt if the Royals realise how how lucky they are. That’s why people say: Old money and new money.

    Our family was very poor; dirt poor. When I was young, I had to dry-fry raw, dried peanuts in a pot, then wrap them in small paper cones, place them into a bamboo woven basket, place the basket on my head and walk under the scorching sunshine to the coach station to sell them. You would hand the cones to the passengers sitting on the coaches who would then pay you. But I never thought it was hard work or I was a poor kid. Naturally. I only I realised how poor we were only when I came to nice England.

    Portugal 7, North Korea 0. Hehehe!!!!

    The Sun newspaper: ” …. North Korean fans sitting in the stadiums are in fact paid Chinese actors as no ordinary North Koreans have ever been allowed to travel outside their country. North Korean communist Leader Koo-Kee-berry and his selected North Korean communist top dogs have traveled to S. A to watch the World Cup with some selected beautiful North Korean young girls. The whole North Korea still doesn’t know there is a World Cup going on as nobody own a television or radio. All the newspapers are state owned and are full of propagandas. Koo-Kee-berry will only let his country know North Korea competes in the World Cup if his team gets to the semi final and will show the match one day late… ”

    Looks like the North Korean football team’s coach will certainly be shot once he has got home.

  9. oh Edna, were you barefoot selling those peanuts? hardship stories always sound better when barefoot.
    I spent most of my childhood ( in Africa) barefoot , could run over any terrain , nowadays its tricky to walk outside on the gravel with no shoes!! I’ve become soft , see what England does to us ? makes us soft.

  10. The sheer number of visitors – about half a million – will help to open the eyes of the world to South Africa

    Well, sure – until the World Cup is over and something else attracts their attention.

    I hate to sound cynical and I am not trying to be pessimistic but real change – sustainable change – for communities like this often requires long-term solutions that don’t always have immediate, obvious results. Educational and vocational development programs, for example. The long term payoff from these can be years away in some cases. And they aren’t flashy, sexy solutions that the media can sell papers with.

    I hope you’re right about the world opening its eyes, Boris and I hope I’m wrong in assuming that it’s more than a quick glance before they look away.

  11. Did Edna sell roasted peanuts at a coach station as a kid back home?! Oh-my-world !!! Never mind – nothing wrong with being poor !

    Did someone mention Cape Town’s ghettos and ” that’s capitalism for you ! ” ? Well, the difference between capitalism and communism is: in a free country, people are allowed to get rich; if you can’t become rich, it’s your own business. In a communist country, people are forced to be poor AND starving so the communists can control them easily.

    That’s why there’s nothing wrong being poor in a free country. Being poor is different from being starving. Let’s help the starving, like Ethiopians who deserve our help.

  12. Barefoot indeed, Kay. Once in England, I had to spend many months smoothing my rough and cracked heels over with a cheese grater.

    Oh, I like your name, love. Kay – very short and American.

  13. I have witnessed a fantastic entrepreneurial spirit in South Africa’s townships. No doubt this is driven by the number of daily problems which the people face (where there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity). To turn this spirit into formal sustainable businesses, funds and mentorship are required. Boris, as Mayor of London, perhaps you can do something to encourage the banks and business community to support township enterprises!! This is the key to what happens after the World Cup.

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