An Update from the Ground: Half a Year Later


My friend Adam Boros, who graciously submitted guests posts on the World Cup has done it again.  Below he provides his on-the-ground perspective on the post-World Cup South Africa, a little more than seven months following the end of the historical event.

By Adam Boros

It has been just over six months since Spain beat the Netherlands in the World Cup final in South Africa. When I am asked how the country has changed in this half-year (admittedly a very short period of time), I find it difficult to come to any sort of meaningful answer. But the nation certainly has changed.

Just across the Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Johannesburg, an extra size billboard is perched above the buildings, reminiscent of a welcome sign. Written over the South African flag, it says very simply, ‘Today, This is the Greatest Country in the World.’ TV commercials, radio spots and newspaper advertisements (similar to the one pictured here) like this sprouted all over South Africa in the months leading up to the tournament last year. They captured perfectly the intense patriotism and joy of the day. Now, the Joburg billboard is one of the few remaining and it speaks to both the good and the challenges of post-World Cup South Africa.

First, the challenges. Many around the world will have read that almost immediately after the final whistle blew at Soccer City, there was a nationwide public sector strike. More than a million teachers (as well as some nurses and other civil servants) marched, picketed and protested for three weeks, demanding a wage increase. The strike meant even more time out of schools for students following the scheduled (but longer than normal) five-week schools closure during the tournament. For a country where education is perhaps the biggest challenge and priority, this was problematic to say the least. In addition, the strike did untold damage to the profession of teaching in the country, as educators were depicted by the media as selfish, undisciplined and (in some cases) violent. The merits of the strike can be debated, but it cannot be denied that the promotional marketing and lavish spending related to the World Cup contributed to teachers’ belief that the ‘Greatest Country in the World’ should do better by them. With billions of Rand being spent on stadiums, new roads and other infrastructure, it did not seem overly impudent to ask for a raise.

The billboard over Johannesburg also symbolises, of course, the media and its role in the country. Unfortunately, the sign’s overtly positive message – as well as the optimistic, giddy tone of media coverage during the tournament – are now distant memories. Any hope that the beauty of that month would have a long-term effect on reporting in the country has been thoroughly dashed. The independence of South Africa’s media (which has come under some level of threat in the last six months) is one of the country’s truly wonderful elements. But the reversion to extremely biased and negative coverage of the country is disappointing. I find myself avoiding newspapers again, uninterested in reading about corruption (the latest obsession), crime and lack of service delivery. It seemed that the media was even unwilling to accept as a fantastic development the significant improvement in matric pass rates this year (given the disruptions noted above). Instead, there was an insistence that the ‘books had been cooked’ and, in essence, improved educational marks were ‘too good to be true.’ At times, one wonders if the ‘Greatest Country’ was nothing more to the media than decorative words for the sake of foreign tourists.

Fortunately, it was more than embellishment to the vast majority of South Africans. Beyond the wonderful new highways, the high-speed train that will be fully operational in the next month, the rapid bus public transport system that continues to expand throughout Johannesburg, the world-class stadiums (some of which are sadly already white elephants), the huge amounts of money generated by the tournament and the increased global respect for and interest in South Africa, the most important benefit of the tournament has been psychological.

South Africans are generally patriotic. There is something special about this country – how it symbolises forgiveness, progress, reconciliation and so much else in the world – and the people know it. The World Cup only deepened this conviction, showing the nation that it could effectively host the world with class and flavour.  But more significantly, the World Cup demonstrated to everyone who lives here what the South Africa of our dreams looks like. It is a country where crime is minimal. It is a country where black and white laugh, dance, sing and celebrate side-by-side, hand-in-hand. It is a country where most things works the way they should, when they should. And it is a country that can confront and solve its problems together, efficiently and effectively.

This is no small thing in a country with as many pressing challenges as South Africa. Poverty and unemployment levels (especially among the youth) are unsustainably high. Skills shortages continue to plague the country. The education system is deeply flawed (even with the significant increase noted above, more than 30% of grade 12 students did not pass their final exam last year). Corruption levels are increasing (although exaggerated by the media) and crime remains a huge difficulty. But now, perhaps more so than at any other time since the euphoric days of 1994, South Africans believe they can solve these problems. Of course there is still pessimism and of course there are depressing, even terrifying statistics one hears on a regular basis. But I believe that on the whole, the nation’s mindset is different. We have not only seen what can be, but have seen that we can make it happen. Ten years from now, South Africa will be a completely different country, and I believe it will be a better one. That audacious billboard hanging over Johannesburg’s skyline is just one example of how the World Cup, in both subtle and explicit ways, will play an important role in this transformation.

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