Independence you can trust
19 April 2014 14:22 (South Africa)
Opinionista Patrick Bond

Should Brazilians foot the bill so Blatter can foot the ball?

  • Patrick Bond
South Africans already know about the social costs of mega-event madness. It is Brazil's turn now.

Over the last fortnight, Brazil’s two million street protesters in 80 cities supporting the “Free Pass Social Movement” have declared how gatvol they are with their multiple sacrifices to Fifa emperor Sepp Blatter. We should not merely offer them our admiration, since a “Grand Pact” is apparently now being crafted by President Dilma Rousseff.

Having failed to repress the rebellion with brute police force, she now appears ready to make large-scale concessions. As she put it last Friday, “We need to oxygenate our political system, to find ways to return to our institutions to be more transparent, more resistant to bad practices and more open to the influence of society.”

We should also take the opportunity to prod our own three-year-old memories. After the giddy month of June-July 2010, our own World Cup hangover still requires maxi-strength aspirins for the crushing pain so many suffer underfoot Blatter’s white elephant stadiums and elites-only infrastructure.

Recall, if you will, thousands of South Africans also rioting in the streets in the period just before the World Cup began, in a manner so threatening that Pretoria appeared ready to implement the corporate-Swiss version of fascist rule.

Today, our municipal budgets are still deep in the red, with tens of millions diverted to stadium operating costs, for which Danny Jordaan had to apologise last year. We now know how, in the Fifa tradition of endless crony-corruption, the big construction cartels illegally colluded to massively overprice those near-empty buildings.

And although it was meant to break even with 110,000 riders a day, the R25 billion Gautrain built for 2010 today needs an R800 million annual subsidy because planners overestimated ridership by two-thirds, while Durban’s unnecessary new R10 billion King Shaka Airport is a mostly desolate “aerotropolis” fantasyland.

After egging us on to build the hedonistic palaces, trains and airports while the vast majority here suffer so much, Blatter’s crimes against SA society and economy continue unpunished. His mafia took R23 billion back to Zurich without paying taxes or heeding exchange controls, and meanwhile the SA foreign debt soared from $70 billion just before the World Cup to $135 billion today.

Brazil is already suffering an identical hangover and the pain is reportedly unbearable. Most observers of the lauded emerging markets – including superficially-strong Turkey – were surprised by the upsurge of popular fury. When Rousseff visited Durban three months ago for the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa leadership summit, her confidence and political momentum were evident.

After all, she and predecessor Lula da Silva – a popular former metalworker – had treated her society and environment far better than the other four, it appeared. Unique amongst the BRICS, inequality had dropped substantially thanks to the doubling of the minimum wage and a family grant.

And in contrast to the much filthier summit partners, Brazil was rated in 2012 by the Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance Index as improving on many fronts – which allowed Rousseff to victoriously host last year’s Rio+20 United Nations Earth Summit.

With her Workers Party having largely defanged the CUT union movement as well as a large chunk of the left intelligentsia and NGOs, Brazil likewise provided grounds for South African progressives’ misimpressions, as we desperately search for social-democratic, green and gender-civilised examples around the world.

Last September, in the wake of the Marikana Massacre, Congress of SA Trade Union pragmatists argued passionately that we needed a “Lula Moment” so as to apply similar policies here. I doubt we’ll hear that untenable phrase again.

In Brasilia, hubris had set in, with elite back-slapping over hosting this month’s Fifa Confederations Cup soccer, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, and also recently winning the leadership of the World Trade Organisation and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. Looking outward at great expense, the rulers put their society through a slow-motion ringer, which I witnessed during a month’s stay in Rio last June, culminating in a march of 80,000 against Rio+20’s pro-corporate “Green Economy” spin.

That protest featured hundreds of huge cardboard cut-outs of a sinister-looking Rousseff bearing a chainsaw, clearing the Amazon for the country’s largest corporations, Vale and Petrobras, helped by the gigantic national development bank. Conflict last month arose again after Vale and the bank wrecked indigenous people’s habitat with the Belo Monte mega-dam. (In Mozambique, similar anger at Vale’s coal land-grabbing is also now motivating protests by thousands of peasants.)

Then came Blatter, with his preposterous demands and, last week, his arrogant red-flag remark to the Brazilian street-bulls: “They should not use football to make their demands heard.”

Ah, but we know that skelm too well: his reign here provided so many justifications for similar revolt. In the run-up to June 2010, there were several dozen protests each day, most over service-delivery shortcomings as government diverted funding from basic needs to pleasing the Swiss. Many protests were aimed explicitly at the way the World Cup was being implemented, including 1500 community and labour activists in Durban on June 16 demanding a “World Cup for All”, not just profiteers.

More than a thousand pupils demonstrated against the Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit when schools displaced by construction were not rebuilt, in a town littered with Fifa-fingerprinted corpses thanks to corruption-related hits. Other Fifa-related protests were held by informal traders in Durban and Cape Town iced out of World Cup participation; against Johannesburg officials by Soccer City’s neighbours in impoverished Riverlea township; against construction companies by workers; against the stadium construction design by disabled people; and against national bureaucrats by four towns’ activists attempting to relocate provincial borders so as to shift their municipalities to a wealthier province.

Labour movement strikes were threatened, raging or had just been settled over national electricity price increases, Eskom and transport sector wages and municipal worker grievances. Using their power to keep hundreds of ships out of Durban’s harbor – some of which transported the 2.3 million Zakumi leopard dolls sewn in Shanghai by workers earning just R20/day – the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union won a wage increase double the inflation rate.

During the games, Blatter insisted on a protest-free zone, with regular police bannings of attempted marches – such as an innocuous “education-for-all” rally at Union Buildings, even though Fifa had co-sponsored the group (One Goal) requesting permission to march – until sufficient resistance emerged to overcome the harassment. SABC and eTV self-censored the movie Fahrenheit 2010 about Fifa exploitation.

With official paranoia at a record high, not only was the SANDF mobilised. Two other activists and I were arrested at Durban’s Beach FanFest for simply handing out anti-xenophobia fliers at half-time during the Ghana-Uruguay match: for allegedly “ambush marketing”. Fifa’s copyright mania prevented use of the phrase “World Cup 2010” when producing small crafts.

Still, a few other victories were recorded along the way. Thousands of stadium construction workers fought for higher wages and often won. And Aids educators who were prevented from distributing condoms at stadiums objected and won that right.

On the evening of June 13 in Durban, several hundred security workers at Moses Mabhida Stadium revolted after the Germany-Australia game, demanding payment of a promised bonus. They had received R190 for 12 hours’ work, as outsourcing and super-exploitation soured employee relations in the often dangerous security sector. Police tear-gassed and stun-grenaded 300 to break up the protest.

In four other stadiums, workers downed tools against the security-sector labour brokers, leading to mass firings and compelling more expensive national police to come to Fifa’s aid as internal security.

Perhaps the most successful protest explicitly against Fifa’s influence was by hundreds of Durban informal traders facing displacement from the century-old Early Morning Market. Were it not for sustained resistance over a year-long period, including a pitched battle with police in mid-2009, they would have been displaced by the then City Manager Mike Sutcliffe so that ANC cronies could build a shopping mall with no space for affordable fruit and vegetables – but the small traders prevailed and remain at Warwick Junction today.

The same battle to save public space against increasing crony-privatisation is what motivates hundreds of thousands of protesters to defend Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

Likewise in Brazil, according to political scientist Ana Garcia, “The movement for free transport is an old part of the students’ movement. They’ve started the street protests in Sao Paulo against the tariff increase, and this quickly became a spontaneous protest against the privatisation of public services, against the huge amount of public money given to private consortia for the World Cup, against extremely bad quality public health, schools and public urban transport.”

Brazil’s Movement of Landless Workers is one of the world’s greatest social movements, and its national secretariat explained the public’s exasperation: “Protests are a consequence of the grave structural urban crises, caused by speculative financial capital, resulting in rising rents, massive car sales financed by the banks and chaotic traffic without public transport, where people spend two hours to go to work and school.”

What Blatter does not want is to see more protest this week directed against the Confederations Cup, whose posters are being torn down in most cities, especially if the society connects-the-dots between their grievances and his greed. And if Blatter fibs about his time here – “The World Cup in South Africa was a huge, huge financial success for Africa, for South Africa and for Fifa” – Brazilians should remember that it was because our society failed to link up all those genuine grievances back in 2010.

Having not learned much since 2010, our most discontented citizens continue to engage in localistic, fragmented “popcorn protests” at amongst the highest per capita rates in the world – yet without the capacity to unite across communities, partly because the main trade unions remain stymied by their Alliance membership.

If in coming days, Rousseff cannot keep the lid on the boiling pot, and if protests against anti-poor mega-events set a new global trend, then the ratio of bread to circuses in all our societies will have to increase. For the Brazilian people will have won a different World Cup competition – for serious social progress. DM

* Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and – with Ashwin Desai and Brij Maharaj – co-edited Zuma’s Own Goal, which reviewed the 2010 World Cup.

  • Patrick Bond

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