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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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.