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SA’s mega-event lustre dims as inequality takes shine off 2010 Fifa World Cup success


Dr Oluwaseun Tella is Director, The Future of Diplomacy, at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge.

Given South Africa’s domestic challenges that have been further exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear it is not well placed to host the Olympic Games, or other mega sporting events, anytime soon.

Ten years ago, South Africa took advantage of the opportunity presented by its hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup to communicate its brand to the world through the intersection of sport, politics and diplomacy. Prior to this event, South Africa had successfully hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), and the 2003 Cricket World Cup.

More than any other tournament, the Fifa World Cup portrayed the country in a positive light in the hearts and minds of the global audience. South Africa’s successful hosting and global commendation of the event challenged the stereotypes associated with Africa such as war, terrorism, corruption, crime, political instability and economic challenges. The global reach of the event presented instant worldwide visibility and appeal. The final match between the Netherlands and Spain was estimated to have been viewed by 700 million people.

The 2010 World Cup thus provided a platform for South Africa to send positive signals around the globe about its status as a regional power with global ambitions. Pretoria also used the event to portray itself as a gateway to Africa and the representative of the continent, as well as to convince the then BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), of its capacity and readiness to join the organisation. It is against this backdrop, that former President Jacob Zuma stated that the World Cup was “the greatest marketing opportunity of our time”. International visitors enjoyed the global spectacle so much so that they vowed to visit South Africa again, and recommend the country to their friends and families.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the only World Cup hosted in Africa, it is critical to assess the wider impact of this event on South Africa’s image as a destination for major and mega sporting events, and by extension, the country’s reputation in the eyes of the global audience. Building on the success of the 2010 World Cup, South Africa bid to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the 2023 Rugby World Cup with the apparent intention to use these events as a launchpad to bid for the Olympic Games.

After the withdrawal of Edmonton, Canada from the race to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games in February 2015, and the subsequent awarding of the event to Durban in September 2015, South Africa appeared set to host the first African Commonwealth Games in line with its reputation as the only African country to have hosted the Fifa and Rugby World Cups. However, the euphoria that greeted the award dimmed as the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) withdrew South Africa’s bid.

Regarding South Africa’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, while the World Rugby Board recommended the country ahead of France and Ireland to host the event, council members ultimately opted for France. The final blow was South Africa’s loss of the hosting rights to the 2019 Afcon to Egypt as Pretoria only managed to get one vote as opposed to Cairo’s 16.

Clearly, the prestige that South Africa enjoyed in the immediate period after the 2010 World Cup has ebbed. The failed bids have undermined its image as an important destination to host major and mega sporting events and revealed the constraints posed by domestic realities. 

South Africa has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. While the official unemployment rate was 29.1% pre-Covid-19, effective under- and unemployment was at 40% with the youth accounting for more than 50%. In light of domestic imperatives exemplified by the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty; ubiquitous corruption; service delivery protests; and degenerated infrastructure, South Africa did not seem ready to host the Commonwealth Games and it is doubtful that the country will be able to host the Olympics anytime soon.

It is important to note that unlike the Fifa and Rugby World Cups, the Commonwealth and Olympic Games pose major challenges as the games are hosted in a single city, demanding that all facilities required are available in the city. The South African government had approved R4.32-billion for the Commonwealth Games and appeared reluctant to commit further funds. It is in light of the financial constraints and domestic imperatives that Durban submitted a revised budget and proposal to the CGF. As it turned out, the discrepancy between the original and the revised bids prompted the CGF to withdraw the games from South Africa.

The Olympic Games require far more resources than the other tournaments. China spent $42-billion in 2008 while Brazil budgeted $13.2-billion for the 2016 Games. Given South Africa’s domestic challenges that have been further exposed by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the country’s inability to fulfil its financial commitment to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games, it is clear that it is not well placed to host the Olympic Games anytime soon.

While South Africa remains the African state with the most developed infrastructure and diplomatic clout to host major, and mega sporting events, the lesson of the past 10 years is that the country needs to put its house in order to be able to successfully bid for, let alone host, international sporting events. DM


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