Not just a game

No matter who lifts the World Cup trophy, South Africa is the real winner, says High Commissioner Zola Skweyiya

After all the thrills and spills of the two opening rounds of the Football World Cup, we are entering the business end of the tournament. The host team, South Africa’s valiant Bafana Bafana, have been knocked out, but the country is by no means down, says South African High Commissioner Zola Skweyiya.

A showcase for Africa
Once the champions have been crowned and the vuvuzelas have fallen silent, South Africa – and Africa as a whole – stands to benefit from a lasting legacy. “This has been an opportunity for South Africa to show what it can do,” says Skweyiya, who has swapped his sober suit and tie for a bright yellow Bafana Bafana strip.

“We want to ensure that Africa does not disappear from the world agenda. With this World Cup, we wanted to show that despite its many difficulties, Africa can do many things if given the chance. People the world over have realised this is not the same Africa of 1960 – it has improved, and it can advance further if given the chance. ”

Four years ago, the doomsday prophets would not have thought it possible for South Africa to stage such a big event, predicting a shambolic tournament with inadequate infrastructure, half-empty stadia and riddled with crime.

Not for the first time, the Rainbow Nation has proved the doubters wrong, producing a World Cup with gleaming stadia, high-speed rail links, motorways, slick new airports, luxury hotels and legions of happy fans.

“We want to ensure that Africa does not disappear from the world agenda. With this World Cup, we wanted to show that despite its many difficulties, Africa can do many things if given the chance”

As for the much-feared crime rate, 41,000 additional police officers have been put on duty, backed up by 56 World Cup courts delivering swift justice. Anecdotal evidence suggests the crime rate has dropped significantly during the tournament.

A lasting legacy
Of course, all this carries a pretty hefty pricetag – it is estimated the tournament has cost the host nation R30 billion (£2.6 billion). The courts alone have cost the government an estimated R45 million (£4 million). Critics have said in a country where much of the population lives in poverty, the money would be better spent on houses, hospitals and schools.

It’s a critique not lost on Skweyiya, a one-time cabinet minister for Public Service under the Mandela administration and minister for Social Development in President Mbeki’s government. A tireless campaigner for the most vulnerable, he is confident hosting the World Cup will have a lasting positive impact.

“Creating jobs is key to poverty reduction and this World Cup created 20-30,000 permanent jobs and thousands more temporary jobs at a time when the world was in a deep recession. The builders who worked on the stadia have skills that they will use to build houses, schools and hospitals in their own communities,” he says.

It is hoped that the positive experience of fans visiting South Africa from all over the world will boost the tourist industry over the long-term, he adds.

The tournament also showcased South Africa’s resourcefulness, which will hopefully spark interest from future investors. “We strongly believe that we cannot live through handouts,” says Skweyiya. “Investment is key to our development.”

Already the World Cup has given South Africa a boost to invest in its physical and social infrastructure, particularly needed in the smaller host cities such as Polokwane, Rustenberg, Nelspruit and Port Elizabeth.

“The airports, rail links and clinics that were built for the World Cup will remain after the fans go home,” says the High Commissioner. “That is a vital foundation for further economic development. The courts that we have established will remain and that is a real investment in our security.”

Nevertheless, most of the profits from the tournament – estimated at £3.2bn – will go to the organisers, FIFA. The High Commissioner believes some of those profits should be ploughed back into social development in Africa. “I get the sense that FIFA thinks that the whole of the world is like Switzerland but it is not so.”

Changing perceptions
With the gaze of the foreign media fixed on South Africa – and popular radio shows being broadcast live from the HighCommission itself – the World Cup has been an invaluable chance to change perceptions of the country. “You cannot put a price on that,” says the High Commissioner.

“South Africans have joined each other – and they have made a network of friends around the world. The event has opened our eyes and hearts and minds”

South Africans themselves have never underestimated the transformational power of sport. During the struggle against apartheid, of all the sanctions it was the sport boycotts that really hit home in the sport-obsessed country.

At the Rugby World Cup in 1995, the sight of President Nelson Mandela lifting the trophy in a Springbok shirt – once a symbol of oppression – united the young and fragile democracy.

This World Cup has seen South Africans from all backgrounds joining together at the stadia, in the townships and fan parks, taking nation-building to the next level.

“South Africans have joined each other – and they have made a network of friends around the world. The event has opened all our eyes and hearts and minds,” says the High Commissioner.

Reaching out
Here in London the World Cup has also been bringing diplomats and communities together (see p3). The tournament has enabled the South African High Commission to reach out to its own diaspora in the UK – who gathered together on Trafalgar Square to watch the live draw and the exciting opening game on the big screen.

The tournament, along with the recent State Visit of President Zuma in March, has been a precious opportunity to rekindle the strong links between the peoples of South Africa and Britain, says Skweyiya.

For the High Commissioner, reviving these ties is a very personal mission. Forced into exile in the 1960s, he spent much of his time abroad raising awareness about the evils of apartheid. He has never forgotten the role the British public played in bringing the anti-apartheid movement to life.

Pointing outside to Trafalgar Square, he says: “We should never forget that the anti-apartheid movement started with protests out there on the Square. The movement spread from the churches to the ordinary people of Britain and from there to the rest of Europe and the world. Without that support it would have been very difficult for many people to understand our plight.”

Over the past weeks people from around the world have gathered again on the Square, this time to celebrate the Rainbow Nation. So whichever team raises the trophy next month, South Africa is already a winner.