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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496