Football matters: for some, this World Cup changes everything

The tournament’s unifying legacy is an important building block for South Africa.

A couple of weeks ago in the New Statesman (5 July edition), Stefan Szymanski argued that the football World Cup benefited only Fifa. His main contention was that the tournament would not be economically successful in a country desperately in need of funds for projects more life-enhancing than the construction of showpiece stadiums.

Moreover, while admitting that the public might derive "a significant feel-good factor" from the event, Szymanski dismissed this, essentially because there are "more serious" things to be worrying about in South Africa.

This view needs challenging. First, on a tangible level, the positive impact of the World Cup for South Africa is becoming apparent. Szymanski cites the springtime prediction by Grant Thornton, consultant to the organising committee, that visitors to South Africa would reach 373,000.

Fewer than 400,000 tourists -- especially when compared to the hope, back in 2004, for a figure more like 600,000 -- would have represented an economic disaster for the country.

Pass me that vuvuzela

Luckily predictions don't always come true. Even the initial estimates, long regarded as desperately optimistic, fell short. Despite varying figures, it is clear that more than a million people passed through South African airports during the World Cup period.

The economic impact of such tourism is obvious. The vuvuzela-toting visitor needs food, a bed, maybe even a safari. Indeed, although the levels of success remain regional -- for example, Johannesburg appears to have done better than Cape Town -- the recent news from retailers and hotels has been extremely positive.

So, money is coming in to South Africa. Moreover, the World Cup has given much-needed impetus to internal development. Szymanski argues that money spent on stadiums should have been spent on infrastructure instead.

But money has been spent on infrastructure. The impressive Gautrain, which opened in June, ferried hundreds of thousands of customers to the airport over the World Cup period. And this is not just some fleeting project, to be abandoned when all the excitement dies down: the line is to be extended across Johannesburg and will reach Pretoria. It will be invaluable to commuters.

Other projects sprouting from the World Cup will have a direct impact on the lives of South Africans. Fifa itself has parted with £46m for 20 Football for Hope projects that provide health and education services as well as sport. Many who came for the tournament, such as the AC Milan star Clarence Seedorf, are launching similar programmes.

But even more important than these concrete moves are the feelings of pride and unity that this World Cup gave to South Africans. They, more than anyone, doubted that their country could pull it off.

So, while the new stadiums might seem like mere "eye candy" to Szymanski, in South Africa they have become icons.

The pride in poverty-stricken Soweto at being the home of Soccer City, one of the world's biggest and most modern stadiums, is palpable.

Excitement that lasts

On another note, South Africa's problems with crime prompted ominous predictions. But the fast-track policing and judicial systems used were so effective that they are to be employed in the future.

Crime, though, was not just low because of effective prevention and enforcement. The "feel-good factor" identified by Szymanski must not be underestimated. The month felt like one huge carnival to South Africans, who danced in the streets in their South African, then Ghanaian, then Argentinian, then Dutch, then Spanish gear as their chosen team was eliminated at each stage. Most did not wish to crash their own party.

Crucially, this excitement is mutating into something more lasting. The legacy of apartheid still hovers in South Africa. In sport, as reflected in the national teams, football is largely regarded as a black activity, rugby being the white man's choice. But this World Cup (and this is a view espoused by many commentators in South Africa) has done more than almost anything else to bring people together.

Not only did the country unite around the national team, but it then united to an extraordinary extent (though no more than we would have done for France or Germany, should they have been flying the flag for Europe) around Ghana as the last African team left in the competition. White South Africans streamed into Soweto, home of the apartheid resistance movement and a place many had never been before. They immersed themselves in a culture almost foreign to them.

As we queued at the turnstiles in Soccer City to watch the Ghana v Uruguay quarter-final, an Afrikaner in front of us took it upon himself to teach anyone who would listen the best technique for blowing the vuvuzela. A white South African, in Soweto, passionately supporting a black African country, embracing something distinctive to local culture. The connotations are unifying and transformative for the new South Africa.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.