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27 June 2017 16:04 (South Africa)
Opinionista Brij Maharaj

Durban should quit as Commonwealth Games host city

  • Brij Maharaj
    Brij-Maharaj.jpg
    Brij Maharaj

    Brij Maharaj is a professor of geography at UKZN who believes (perhaps naively!) that a fair, just, non-racial and non-sexist society is still possible in South Africa.

It is not often that an opportunity to correct a costly mistake presents itself, especially in the arena of mega-event bidding. The KwaZulu-Natal coastal city has a chance to exit and should take it.

Largely because of delays in meeting several deadlines, no doubt influenced by South Africa’s parlous (semi-captured) economic state, Durban is presented with an opportunity to be disqualified by default (after being awarded the Commonwealth Games 2022 in September 2015), with many takers still interested, including Liverpool and Birmingham. So there is a plan B.

According to Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) President Louise Martin, South Africa had to fulfil certain contractual responsibilities by the end of November 2016 or it would lose the event.

Martin referred to the “historic decision (that) awarded the Games to Africa for the first time – an inspiring and important moment for our Commonwealth sporting fraternity.

I must state clearly, as has been reaffirmed this week, that we all remain committed to ensuring that Durban 2022 will be a great success. As you know, the award to Durban was based on a number of conditions which were to be achieved within a specified period.”

Martin informed the General Assembly of the Commonwealth Games Federation that: “In the past two weeks we have received information from Sascoc and the South African Government that raises doubts in relation to their financial position and their ability to meet the commitments they made through the bid. I acknowledge that there have been and there are challenges. And while there is time to address these challenges, we need to be mindful not to place ourselves in a position where a Games in 2022 are at risk. Therefore, we need to resolve this situation with our colleagues from South Africa expeditiously ... We are still six years out, so now is the time to reinforce our commitments in partnership with Durban – as I sincerely hope we will do – or look at alternatives.”

Durban had missed a number of critical targets: “These included establishing an Organising Committee within 180 days of being awarded the Games. They have also failed to make their first payment of £1.5-million ($1.9-million/€1.6-million) to CGF by March 31 for hosting the event.”

The GCF adopted a motion granting the ruling Executive Board the power to select a “new host city without a formal bid process if the event is withdrawn from Durban”, as “the most important priority was protecting the Commonwealth Games so it took place in 2022”.

As early as March 2016, “concerns had been raised over the financing of the Games after KwaZulu-Natal Finance MEC Belinda Scott admitted … that the province would not be able to contribute ZAR580-million (£26-million/$38-million/€34-million) as initially promised, to help stage the event”. Mark Alexander, chairman of Durban 2022, conceded that he had “no idea when the guarantees will be signed and the money paid”.

While the Minister of Finance has signed the financial guarantee required by the CGF, in SA 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 CWG 2022 was R3.4-billion and six months down the line it has doubled to R6.4-billion. Furthermore, the bidding country commits to absorbing any cost overruns, a guarantee which is like signing a blank cheque. All indicators suggest that SA is heading into a recession, so the final cost could more than double the R6.4-billion. The 2014 Commonwealth Games hosted in Glasgow cost R13-billion.

Durban is following a global trend whereby 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 investments and tourists by being linked to influential and high-ranking events such as the Olympic Games, the Fifa World Cup or CWG. These international sporting competitions are said to have millions of spectators at the event itself, and also to attract billions of viewers through satellite television transmission.

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. Ruwayda Redfearn from Deloitte in KZN said: “Hosting the Commonwealth Games 2022 … will position the city as an international destination of choice. Although Durban is South Africa’s top domestic tourism destination, this will position it perfectly to grow its piece of the international tourism pie … South Africa remains justifiably proud of the 2010 FIFA World Cup … It is important that we deliver games that are free from any corruption, bribery or unlawful acts whatsoever.”

However, such corporates 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.

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 of 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 in Durban’s CWG 2022 plan is the closure of the Newmarket Stables, and the associated loss of livelihoods.

The Italian National Olympic Committee suspended Rome’s bid for the 2024 Summer Games after the city council refused to support the candidacy (Paris, Los Angeles and Budapest remain in the race, after Boston and Hamburg also withdrew). Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi argued that the city had to “prioritise matters such as rubbish collection and corruption”. We are clearly not understanding why far wealthier cities like Edmonton and Boston have withdrawn from bidding for mega sport events – taking cognisance of public sentiment and economic realities.

While countries in the Global North are turning their backs to 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 such as 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. A window of opportunity comes with the Commonwealth Games exit option – Durban and SA should take it! DM

Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

  • Brij Maharaj
    Brij-Maharaj.jpg
    Brij Maharaj

    Brij Maharaj is a professor of geography at UKZN who believes (perhaps naively!) that a fair, just, non-racial and non-sexist society is still possible in South Africa.

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