The South Africa World Cup: Invictus in Reverse

Johannesburg - You see it the moment you walk off the plane: a mammoth soccer ball hanging from the ceiling of Johannesburg International Airport festooned with yellow banners that read, "2010 Let's Go! WORLD CUP!" If you swivel your head, you see that every sponsor has joined the party - Coca Cola, Anheuser-Busch - all branded with the FIFA seal. It's when your head dips down that you see another, less sponsored, universe. Even inside this gleaming state-of-the-art airport, men ranging in age from 16-60 ask if they can shine your shoes, carry your bags, or even walk you to a cab. It's the informal economy fighting for breathing room amidst the smothering sponsorship. Welcome to South Africa, a remarkable place of jagged contrasts: rich and poor; black and white, immigrant and everyone else. On a normal week, it's the dispossessed and the self-possessed fighting for elbow room. But the 2010 World Cup, which starts in 90 days, has taken these contrasts and propelled them into conflict.

The present situation in South Africa could be called "Invictus in reverse." For those who haven't had the pleasure, the film Invictus is about the way Nelson Mandela used sport, particularly the near all-white sport of rugby to unite the country after the fall of apartheid. The coming World Cup has in contrast, provoked the camouflage of every conflict to present the image of a united nation to the world. As Danny Jordaan, the World Cup's lead South African organizer said, "People will see we are African. We are world-class." Note that the concern is about what the world sees not what South Africans see. What South Africans see, as one young man told me, is, "Football ..looting our country."  The contrasts are becoming conflicts because the government at the behest of FIFA is determined to put on a good show, no matter the social cost.

There are the dispossessions as thousands have been forced from their homes into makeshift shantytowns, to both make way for stadiums and make sure that tourists don't have to see any depressing scenes of poverty. The United Nations even issued a complaint on behalf of the 20,000 people removed from the Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town, called an "eyesore" by World Cup organizers.

There is the crackdown on people who make their living selling goods by the stadiums. Regina Twala who has been vending outside soccer matches for almost 40 years, has been told that she and others must be at least one kilometer from the stadiums at all times. She said to the Sunday Independent, "They say they do not want us here. They do not want us near the stadium and we have to close the whole place." In addition, FIFA has pushed the South African government to announce that they would arrest any vendors that sell products emblazoned with the words "World Cup" or even the date "2010." Samson, a trader in Durban, said to me, "This is the way we have always done business by the stadium. Who makes the laws now: FIFA?"

Samson was only referencing the threats toward vendors, but he could have been speaking about the series of laws South Africa has passed to prepare for the tournament. Declaring the World Cup a "protected event", the government, in line with FIFA requirements, has passed by-laws that  "spell out where people may drive and park their cars, where they may and may not trade or advertise, and where they may walk their dogs." They've made clear that beggars or even those found of using foul language (assumedly off the field of play) could be subject to arrest.

Then there are the assassinations. In a story that has garnered international news but little buzz in the United States, two people on a list of 20, have been assassinated for "whistle-blowing" on suspected corruption in the construction of the $150 million Mbombela Stadium. The Sunday World newspaper attained the list, which included two journalists and numerous political leaders. There are accusations swirling that the list is linked to the ruling African National Congress, which the ANC has denied in bizarre terms, "The ANC...wants to reiterate its condemnation of any murder of any person no matter what the motive may be," said ANC spokesperson Paul Mbenyane. It's never a good sign when you have to make clear that you are anti-murder.

All of these steps- displacements, crackdowns on informal trade, even accusations of state-sponsored assassinations - have an echo for people from the days of apartheid. It's provoked a fierce, and wholly predictable resistance. In a normal month, South Africa has more protests per capita than any nation on earth. But when you factor in the World Cup crackdown, a simmering nation can explode. Over 70,000 workers have taken part in strikes connected to World Cup projects since the preparations have begun, with 26 strikes since 2007. On March 4th, more than 250 people, in a press conference featuring representatives from four provinces, threatened to protest the opening game of the Cup unless their various demands were met. These protests should not be taken lightly, A woman named Lebo said to me, "We have learned in South Africa that unless we burn tires, unless we fight police, unless we are willing to return violence on violence, we will never be heard," Patrick Bond from the Center Civil Society in Durban said to me that protests should be expected: "Anytime you have three billion people watching, that's called leverage." Indeed. There is a scene in Invictus where Freeman's Mandela says, "I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. I am the master of my fate." The people of South Africa still consider themselves unconquerable: whether they face apartheid, FIFA, or their current government. But FIFA insists with equal insistence that the World Cup will brook no dissent. In 90 days, we'll find out who masters the fate of this beloved country.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love" (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at

7 Reader Comments | Add a comment

That's more like it

First BC and now this. Its a wonder anyone signs on to host these international sports extravaganzas anymore.



Pardon my ignorance, but what does FIFA stand for? You really ought to include such things for numbskulls such as myself who really only takes in tournaments & such. A box score fanatic I'm not.

Dennis Jones


federation of international football associations

interesting take

sports has certainly caused some social problems - i find this very similar to the situation in washington dc in which the brand new baseball stadium drained funds that were desperately needed in other sectors of society. hopefully at some point in the future we will be able to find a way to promote sports in impoverished areas without compensating the rights of the derelict.

by the way everyone, when you're done here make sure you check out for candid and insightful analysis.

contrast indeed

i was in south africa last summer and was soundly struck as well by the contrast i saw. the disconnect of mulit-million dollar (rand) stadiums being built that cast appalling shadows over the shantytowns and poverty of that brilliant country was mind-boggling and disheartening, to say the least. i hope if nothing else, hosting the cup will cast the world's attention on the majority who still reside without the necessities they deserve in a democracy that promised so much. but i'm not holding my breath.

No instant replay

No Ireland Republic there because soccer doesn't use instant replay on goals like even the NHL uses video technology. That's farcical and though the game itself is great, the variety we often see in the world cup respectfully is marred by feigning injury, diving and other acts. Take it with a grain of salt and though our athletes in the USA have done dishonorable things in other sports in the past like using performance enhancers in track, etc. I think our USA National Soccer/Football team basically does not do the things some other countries' teams do to get an advantage, to earn a win. The World Cup is a bit overblown, I wish there were a competing International soccer organization to run these events better and more properly. Fifa has been thought to be quite corrupt at times as well as are the Football Associations in "some countries.

Reply to Bentsen re Ireland Republic in world cup

@ Bentsen - you are incorrect about Ireland not being in the world cup due to no use of video replay in football (soccer).

You (like a lot of uninformed people) assume Ireland would've won their playoff against France if Henry's handball had been called by the referee. There is in fact absolutely no certainty about who would've won the game without Gallas' goal.

The game was tied 1-1 and was heading to penalties. Neither team could score a 2nd goal.

Without Henry's handball and Gallas' goal, the game probably would've been won on penalties.

There's no way of knowing who would've won, tho the French are far more experienced in those big game penalty shootouts than the Irish are.

Also, the notion that FIFA "fixes" these games in favor of certain teams is just nonsense, peddled by a lot of people unable to understand how international football works. Every time there's a result people don't like, there are accusations of a fixed game. In the 1998 world cup, Brazilians made this accusation when Brazil lost to France in the final. To this day, many Brazilians believe that game was fixed.

All that said, I too support video replay (esp. goal line technology) and think FIFA is run by a lot of neanderthal idiots who refuse to join the 21st century.

7 Reader Comments | Add a comment

PLEASE NOTE: This forum is for dialog between Edge of Sports readers. Discuss!

Submit your comment below:

Your Name


(Only if we need to contact you—not for advertising purposes)



Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
Become an Edge of Sports Sustainer (Click Here)

Contact him at