Opinionista Brij Maharaj 23 September 2015

Durban 2022 Commonwealth Games: A poisoned chalice?

No one has the foggiest idea about the cost of hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Durban. This is basically gambling with the public purse – and the overburdened taxpayer will bear this risk. South Africa and Durban not be making such a gamble and have not learnt the lessons from the Fifa 2010 World Cup.

So Durban has been selected (as with most things South African, by default) as the city to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Since it was a one-horse race, one has to assume that, unlike the Fifa 2010 World Cup bid, no bribes were necessary.

However, no one has the foggiest idea about the cost of hosting the games in Durban. This is basically gambling with the public purse – and the overburdened taxpayer will bear this risk. The initial figures bandied about for the cost of hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games was R3.4-billion and six months down the line it has doubled to R6.4-billion (and African National Congress-aligned tenderpreneurs are already chomping at the bit!). All indicators suggest that South Africa is heading into a recession, so the final cost could more than double.

Research conducted by Professor Bent Flyvbjerg from the Oxford School of Business suggests that in terms of mega event expenditure “costs wind up being significantly higher than what was initially estimated … while … the actual benefits are lower”. For example, the original estimate for the 2010 Delhi games was $270-million, and the final cost escalated to $4.1-billion.

All matters relating to South Africa’s bid for the games (as with the Fifa World Cup) remain a secret – in a democracy! Only a sanitised 54-page summary of the 600-page bid submitted to the Commonwealth Games Federation is available for public scrutiny. There has been a lack of public transparency and democratic accountability in making the decision to bid for the games. A critical question is why Durban’s 600-page bid book is not available for public scrutiny, and what is being hidden?

And the usual rhetorical platitudes are spewed by the beneficiaries of such bids – politicians, bureaucrats and the business elites – “sustainable legacies, world class, African first”.

There was the customary condescending rhetorical reference to wining the bid for Africa. In a press statement entitled Our City On The Rise! It’s Africa’s Moment – Durban To Host 2022 Commonwealth Games, Durban mayor James Nxumalo contended: “We will be hosting these games on behalf of the African continent which is about 1-billion people. It is history in the making, as these games will be coming to the African continent for the first time. South Africa is under reconstruction and development, as we are building this new country which is non-racial, non-sexist and democratic.” A hollow claim indeed, especially against the background of escalating xenophobia and afrophobia in South Africa.

Durban is following a global trend where marketing the city as a mega-event destination has become a prominent neoliberal urban promotion strategy. Some of the perceived advantages of hosting a mega-event in a developing country are the anticipated influx of capital and profits which could be used to address basic needs. Also, the host city or country’s image will be boosted as a global destination for economic investment and tourists by being linked to influential and high-ranking events such as the Olympic Games, the Fifa World Cup or the Commonwealth Games. These international sporting competitions are said to have millions of spectators at the actual event, as well as attracting billions of viewers through satellite television transmissions.

Organisations like Fifa, the International Olympics Committee and the Commonwealth Games Federation (which are not known for transparency and public accountability) have basically developed a ‘franchise’ model which delineates the form and structure of sporting events in significant detail. These associations enforce and monitor certain compulsory demands to which host nations and cities have to conform, which have been largely configured from a developed world perspective.

These include the number and type of stadiums, media and communication facilities to reach global television audiences; transport and infrastructure upgrades in and around host cities; and an increase in hotel accommodation to accommodate participants and the expected influx of tourists. Also, normal national laws are suspended to favour the international organisation for the duration of the event. Furthermore, the bidding country commits to absorbing any cost overruns, a guarantee which is like signing a blank cheque.

A major challenge is that the infrastructure developed for the event itself is of little or no use to the host city or country after the event. Furthermore, the cost of developing and maintaining infrastructure is extremely high, and it mostly has to be constructed from scratch. This often results in a diversion of public spending priorities, especially in countries with high levels of poverty and inequality.

In India, Brazil and South Africa a key concern has been the sustainability of the stadiums after the 2010 games, and the 2010 and 2014 Fifa World Cups, respectively, and the possibility that these could become costly white elephants, adding to the financial burden on municipalities. The majority of host cities could not afford to pay for the maintenance of their stadiums, and these costs are being borne by taxpayers. The Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, for example, suffered an operating loss of R34.6-million in the 2012-13 financial year.

International sports writer Dave Zirin described the Moses Mabhida stadium as the “most breathtaking” he’d ever seen, but he called for a reality check: “This is a country where staggering wealth and poverty already stand side by side. The World Cup, far from helping this situation, is just putting a magnifying glass on every blemish of this post-apartheid nation.”

Generally bids for mega-events are promoted by influential, politically connected people and groups in the private and public spheres, who operate in abstraction from public accountability. These include global corporations such as PwC, Deloitte, Grant-Thornton, etc, who are actively involved in developing and encouraging governments to bid for these international events. In this regard the views of PwC on mega-events and infrastructure development are instructive: “Our experience of advising organising committees, contractors, and host countries allows us to discern – from the perspective of an infrastructure investment – the factors that create a lasting legacy for a host city or country.”

However, such corporations serve as million-dollar consultants who “do not fully represent the population of a host city or nation, nor are they likely to speak on behalf of those who lack power and resources”, for whom benefits are unlikely.

Frequently, successful bids have been patriotically and popularly endorsed. There is a predictable pattern – jubilation at the announcement of a successful bid, and then dejection as the negative social and economic realities of hosting a mega-event become evident – budget and cost overruns; forced evictions and human rights violations; loss of livelihoods; and questionable legacies.

Public sector infrastructure expenditure favoured the elite and bypassed the poor, and frequently exacerbated their condition with forced removals, displacement, loss of livelihoods, violations of human rights, and denial of civil liberties. Such mega-event experiences in the south have been labelled “staged cities” in order to illustrate the contradictions “between the mega-event as a means of constructing an image of ‘development’ and the actively concealed landscape of the urban poor”.

Recent mega-events in India, Brazil and South Africa were used to promote the status and power of the ruling elites, while simultaneously serving as a catalyst to push the poor to the edge, if not out of, the cities. Poverty was an embarrassment to their aspirations for global, world class status. Hence, the intention to purge slums, street children, informal traders, and other visible signs of poverty. Between 2004 and 2010, about 200,000 slum dwellers were evicted from Delhi in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. More than 300,000 street vendors lost their livelihoods as a result of the games, and many were arbitrarily evicted before the games in the quest to promote Delhi as a world class city. Between hosting the Fifa 2014 World Cup and the Olympics in 2016, about 170,000 people will be displaced in Brazil.

In South Africa, about 100,000 street vendors, mostly women, lost their livelihoods throughout the duration of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Fifa 2010 was used by the eThekwini municipality as a smoke screen to remove informal traders and shack dwellers, and to try (unsuccessfully) to destroy the Warwick Market. There was simply no place for the poor in aspiring world class cities, and Durban 2022 would be no exception. The first casualty as Durban prepares for the 2022 Commonwealth Games is the closure of the Newmarket Stables, and the associated loss of livelihoods.

We are clearly not understanding why far more wealthy cities like Edmonton and Boston have withdrawn from bidding for mega sporting events – taking cognisance of public sentiment and economic realities. While countries in the north are turning their backs on mega sporting events, seeing the need to spend rather on social priorities, it becomes even more imperative to investigate the impact of these spectacles on the economy of developing countries like South Africa where indices indicate that inequality is deepening rather than being mitigated.

South Africa and Durban should not be gambling with the public purse and have not learnt lessons from Fifa 2010. There were legitimate concerns that the escalation in the costs of the stadiums and infrastructure for Fifa 2010 resulted in the diversion of public funds from more urgent social priorities such as sanitation, housing, healthcare and education. There is no evidence that the Commonwealth Games 2022 in Durban will be any different. DM

Brij Maharaj is professor of geography in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.