Social cohesion and the world cup

ZAYD MINTY asks how South African can build on new prospects for social cohesion in South African cities after the 2010 soccer World Cup.

 As I write this, South Africa is undergoing a nation-changing experience with the hosting of the 2010 soccer World Cup. Patriotism is on full display – there are flags everywhere. On the tournament’s opening day, Cape Town’s central city streets were filled with a sea of people in the colours of the national team, Bafana Bafana. Crowds came from early till late – all  olours, shades, ages and sizes – blowing vuvuzelas at each other, laughing together. When Bafana Bafana scored the first goal for South Africa, the room I was in rose as one and screamed and danced a victory dance. I imagine it was the same everywhere in the country in bars, homes, on the streets. Not since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 have we experienced anything quite like this.

 The lead-up to the World Cup, including the peaceful staging of major rugby events in Soweto, has also had a massive impact on national pride and racial harmony. But what happens after this?

Research suggests that countries hosting mega events such as the World Cup invariably fall into a form of collective depression after the event. A strong focus on delivering the event itself means there is little to hope for after it’s all done, and problems conveniently brushed under the proverbial national rug usually re-emerge. For these reasons, it is prudent to build on the gains made in the development of new infrastructure together with the increased media visibility of the event. It is important to have a post-event plan.

Barcelona is often cited as a model for using a mega-event for city betterment following its hosting of the Olympics. The games were used to build on the city’s long history of urban re-imagination, and to reignite its unique Catalan identity, the language and intellectual traditions of which were severely repressed for decades during and after the fascist Franco government.

The Olympics were used very consciously to rebuild Barcelona’s sense of self, and its long histories were retold through numerous museums and cultural sites. A new museum was created to celebrate Catalan identity, and significant new art projects were commissioned.

Immediately after the games, Barcelona began planning for the Universal Forum of Cultures – an event specifically created to build on the gains made through the Olympics. The Forum focused on cultural diversity and sustainability, and featured cultural activities and debates on a range of issues from all over the globe.

While ultimately the Forum’s impact was debatable, it played an important role in furthering the processes of conscious urban development and building social cohesion that began with the impetus of the Olympic Games.

Engagements of this kind are inevitably easier within one city than across an entire country, where regional complexities and other variables are at play. Yet are there lessons for us in South Africa, after the World Cup is over?

It is important to recognise that, soccer aside, we have just emerged from an extremely gruelling few months. Poor service delivery has resulted in countless protests around the country, with too many areas simmering with potentially explosive tension. The global economic crisis has worsened already high levels of unemployment and poverty. Widespread corruption, and ineffectual responses to it, have dented confidence in the political system.

Further, growing rifts in the ruling party and with its alliance partners have added to the inward-looking focus of the ANC. Youth League president Julius Malema has ushered in extremely negative politics of engagement that have polarised the country around race, nationalism and privilege. These and his disrespectful behaviour towards alliance partners and elder statesmen in various political parties have resulted in only limited censure from the ruling party.

The murder of Eugene Terreblanche was just one moment in what appears to be the increase of white fears and negativity. Right-wing sentiments grow daily online, and in particular on social networking sites. Many of these tensions will likely be reignited after the World Cup, and not too long after the hangover is gone.

We also need to recognise that more than 16 years after democracy, we are still a country born out of a racialised past, and remain culturally at odds with each other in many respects.

Even as scientists argue that race does not exist beyond a societal construct, South Africans continue to talk about Indians, coloureds, whites and blacks – without recognising the divides that deepen as we use these terms. Our debates and terminologies are racialised in exactly the same mould as in our apartheid past.

But how do we go beyond race without talking about it? Dr Neville Alexander’s recent challenge to the University of Cape Town to find others way to quantify transformation, rather than through the use of historic racial terms, is a useful direction. What is clear from all of this is that we have not yet managed to institute a non-racial project that brings us into the future. And this I argue is a first possible legacy of the 2010 World Cup. To maintain the positive aspects of the World Cup we need to actively work on the meaning of non-racialism in a new South Africa. We need to approach this issue in way that helps to re-evaluate narrow conceptions of identity formulation. As a country still coming out of a very difficult transition, but with an exceptional Constitution, we still have the opportunity to address the past in a more productive way. What the World Cup has shown is that despite the difficulties of the present, we have the potential to forge a dynamic new identity. It has shown that people are ready to participate in a nation-building exercise that goes beyond narrow racial boundaries; but the invitation and follow-through need to be more inclusive.

Secondly, the arts and culture sector has again been marginalised, and left to the last minute before being included in World Cup preparations. As demonstrated by Barcelona, there is enormous potential within this sector to help us re-imagine our South African identity both visually and viscerally, and the sector should be adequately resourced and given the recognition, time and space needed to do what it does best.

Third, and lastly, practical projects like Cape Town’s plans to bid for the title of World Design Capital 2014 are needed to keep our energies focused, and build and expand on critical arts and culture work. This bid presents a unique opportunity, very unlike the World Cup, to explore the idea of redesigning and repositioning the city as a place that serves the structural, as well as the social and cultural needs of its citizens.

Zayd Minty is Creative Cape Town coordinator at the Cape Town Partnership. He writes in his personal capacity.

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