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Conflicting interests: After FIFA and the Commonwealth Games

The questions being asked in South Africa after the FIFA World Cup are similar to those raised in India before, during and after the Commonwealth Games. Who really benefits from these mega events? The people or only the contractors? Transparency International states that public works and construction are the most corrupt sector in the world, says Kalpana Sharma

The Commonwealth Games are over but what have they left behind?  Controversies.  Scandals of corruption.  Stories about shoddy workmanship.  “World class” sports facilities.  A Games Village, that went from dirty and unlivable to tolerable in one week, for sale.  The list is long and by now familiar.

But the relevant question to ask is in terms of what such an extravaganza does for the city or cities in which it is located.  Does it really upgrade the infrastructure so that all residents benefit?  Or does it create white elephants at the expense of the exchequer that will take decades to recover the initial investment apart from on-going maintenance costs that will further drain resources?

These are some of the questions that South Africans are asking.  They raised them before the successful FIFA World Cup 2010 matches were held there in June/July this year.  And they are still asking them after the fun and frenzy of the World Cup has subsided and life has returned to normal.

Take Johannesburg, for instance.  Soccer City, the striking looking football stadium, was constructed in the heart of Soweto, the township of urban poor known best for its rebellion and uprising at the height of the apartheid regime in 1976.  On June 16 that year, hundreds of school children had dared the police and come out on the road and protested against the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction.  Amongst those shot dead by the South African police was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, in whose memory a museum has now been erected.

Soccer is the game of townships like Soweto.  The people there are passionate about it.  Much as kids play cricket in this country on any open space they can find, in South Africa, and townships like Soweto, soccer is played.  Yet, even though Soccer City is visible from most parts of Soweto, an ordinary soccer fan from that township would not have been able to watch a live match there.  Why?  Because you could only buy tickets on the Internet with a credit card.  Poor people have neither.

That was only one of the problems.  Although most South Africans are proud that the one month of matches passed seamlessly, without any incidents, and everyone who visited South Africa had nothing but praise for the facilities, the urban poor cannot help but wonder if the funds could have been better used.

For apart from being denied the chance to watch matches, the areas around stadia like Soccer City were sanitised so that no informal vendor could sell goods anywhere in the vicinity.  With its high levels of unemployment, one of the only forms of livelihood available to poor people in South Africa is selling goods on the street.  You see vendors everywhere you go, often sitting on a box with a tray full of a variety of goods.  This is no different from the options facing the urban poor in this country.  Yet, street vendors were barred from selling anywhere near the stadia and oddly, the ban continues and will stay until December.

A stone’s throw from Soccer City is one of the many tin shack settlements where the poor live. Fifteen years ago, the entire area looked like that.  These are slums not very different from many of those in our cities like Mumbai.  Although South Africa has made a herculean effort to deal with housing for the urban poor, something that this country can certainly learn from, there is still a great deal to be done.  And the contrasts are only too visible.

One of the plus points of the investment surrounding the FIFA World Cup was the investment in public transport, something that has a direct benefit for the poorest.  The total amount spent on enhancing transport systems in the different cities where stadia were built or refurbished exceeded what was spent on the sporting facilities. You can see evidence of this in the new Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) introduced in Johannesburg, a city that has no bus system.  The only way poor people can travel is by ‘taxi’, a privately-owned mini-bus with around 12 seats that runs on the main roads and picks up passengers at crossroads.  Because of the World Cup, this system has also been streamlined with large terminals where people can go and pick up a taxi ride to their destination.  As a result, even if poor people still live outside city limits, a legacy of the apartheid era where under the Group Areas Act people from the different races could not live in the same locality, they can commute more easily to their jobs in the city than they could in the past.  But it is still not easy and if there is anger at the slow pace of change, it is not entirely surprising.

But the questions being asked in South Africa several months after the FIFA World Cup are similar to those raised in this country before, during and now after the Commonwealth Games.  Who really benefits from these mega events?  Do people benefit or only the contractors?

The answers to those questions are also strikingly similar in India and South Africa.  A fascinating monograph, brought out in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup, exposes the extent of corruption, crony capitalism and nepotism that was an integral part of the construction frenzy that preceded that event.  Player and Referee: Conflicting Interests and the 2010 FIFA World Cup, edited by Collette Schulz Hersenberg , points out that according to Transparency International (TI), the extent to which corruption is concealed is directly related to the size of projects.  In TI’s Bribe Payers Index 2002, public works and the construction sector were identified as the most corrupt in the world.  It estimated that the amount lost worldwide due to corruption just in infrastructure procurement was in the region of US$3,200 billion a year.

Several other interesting points emerge from this monograph.  One, that the corruption disease is not restricted to poorer countries or emerging economies like South Africa or India.  Even the 2006 FIFA World Cup held in Germany threw up a corruption scandal involving the president of one of the hosting clubs.  The very size of the event and the temptation to exploit the contract system to benefit friends and family, are tendencies that are universal, it would appear.

The second point that would have a resonance to the situation in India is how one maintains and covers the ongoing costs of expensive stadia.  According to the editor of the monograph, some of the stadia built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan and South Korea could not be maintained and ultimately had to be demolished.  In South Africa, similar questions are already being asked about Soccer City in Gauteng and Green Point in Cape Town. 

And third, whether these mega events actually yield economic benefits to the host country as is projected before the event.  The story from South Africa is that FIFA made more than the government of South Africa.  In India, we will have to see whether the contractors from outside India made profits far in excess of anything India gained from hosting the Commonwealth Games.  Certainly in South Africa, local people did not benefit.  For instance, despite South Africa producing many different brands of beer, the FIFA contractual terms restricted the sale of beer to only one brand, and that too an imported one. 

The bottom line in any city, particularly in cities in South Africa or India, is how one sets priorities for development.  If mega events such as these do not boost the local economy, only marginally contribute to urban development by way of additional transport infrastructure, and divert funds from the more pressing issues, such as housing for the poor, are they worth it?  Whose image do they boost, especially if corruption in every deal seems to be the inescapable hallmark of all such events?

The scorecard on Delhi after the Commonwealth Games has yet to be prepared.  It is fairly apparent already that no one is going to win any gold medals in the Organising Committee and perhaps even in the Delhi government.  And citizens of the national capital – all citizens and not just those who could afford to buy tickets to the events – will have to decide whether in the end their lives have been made easier, have remained the same, or become even more stressful after this showpiece mega event. 

Infochange News & Features, October 2010