If there is any justice, there are a lot of newspaper reporters and people out there in the blogosphere who should currently be suffering violent indigestion from eating the thousands of negative words they wrote before Africa’s first World Cup.
Many of them would –in the unlikely event they had much conscience—be in Britain, which plumbed the depths in an absurd crescendo just before the World Cup started with predictions of a bloodbath, machete wielding racist gangs and even a serious danger to the England team from a terrifying array of poisonous snakes.
Even aside from that, World Cup organizers had to endure four years of reporting that suggested Africa was incapable of such a vast logistical undertaking, that the stadiums would not be ready and that fans and teams would fall victim to South Africa’s admittedly high rate of violent crime.
In the event, the tournament turned out to be a triumph not only for South Africa but for the continent as a whole. Asset managers say there has already been a perceptible increase in new business and capital flowing to Africa. As one analyst told me, the vast television audience would have been in many cases shocked to find that not only were the matches being played in stadiums more beautiful than their own countries but that the population didn’t live in a jungle and that they had roads and electricity. Perhaps most important, the tournament undoubtedly brought South Africa’s still wary races together in a huge surge of patriotism and pride. Whites, including fanatical rugby supporters, freely mixed with blacks, and suspicions and misunderstandings dissipated.
This is precisely the dividend that South Africa had prayed for from the World Cup, a rebranding and correction of the so prevalent misconceptions of Africa, which in many foreigners’ minds had been synonymous only with tragedy, pestilence and war. Of course it would be naïve to suggest problems do not remain, and there was a rude reminder of that in Uganda where more than 70 people watching the World Cup final were killed in bomb attacks claimed by Somali Islamists.
But that attack is unlikely to change the memories of overseas audiences who saw a well run tournament in stunning arenas with joyful and colorful crowds who packed the matches even after their own team suffered the indignity of being the first host nation knocked out in the group stage. A World Cup which the Jeremiahs had predicted would be a chaotic and violent disaster, achieved the third highest attendance ever at almost 3.2 million seats filled. FIFA President Sepp Blatter gave South Africa his highest score for the World Cup and heaped praise on the organizers.
There is no doubt that this is of enormous importance to South Africa in terms of attracting investment and tourism, even though there are still critics who say it should never have spent the vast budget of $5.3 billion – many, many times the original estimate – while it still has an army of poor and unemployed, the world’s highest HIV caseload and some of the worst violent crime outside a war zone.
In fact perhaps the biggest achievement was the reduction of crime to almost negligible levels, by the mobilization of a well-organized and equipped force of more than 40,000 to guard the tournament in an extremely well-planned operation.
This all creates an interesting issue. As all the fans leave, the South African government is going to face some difficult questions. If it could build so many wonderful stadiums, why can’t it provide enough new housing for shanty dwellers or hospitals or schools? Above all there is a very real demand for good enough policing for South Africans to finally feel safe on their own streets.
Officials have promised they will continue the good work but everybody recognizes that it is one thing to guard a specific event, another to combat random and often domestic violence. While the nation could unite in consensus around staging the World Cup, the ruling ANC party is riven by divisions and if it returns to business as usual with constant squabbling the good news could soon turn into bad. Already many migrant workers from other African countries are sending their families home following rumors that xenophobic attacks will resume after 60 people were killed in an ugly outbreak two years ago. Troops and police moved into townships around Cape Town on Monday after attacks and threats against migrants.
So it looks like the challenge after a wonderful World Cup that is the pride of Africa, will be to ensure that the incredibly positive vibe lasts and doesn’t become just a fond memory within months.
Barry Moody, has worked for Reuters for over 35 years and is one of the company's most experienced journalists. He was Middle East and Africa Editor based in London for seven years before moving to Nairobi early in 2006 to head a new drive to boost Reuters coverage of the continent. For the last year he has led advance logistical preparations and local coverage of the South African World Cup.