Government learns lessons as South Africa takes on the staging of the World Cup

By Donna Bryson, AP
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

City’s tale shows hurdles in taking Cup to Africa

NELSPRUIT, South Africa — A fight over the money to build a World Cup stadium and infrastructure brought down this town’s municipal government. It’s also blamed for the slaying of a politician.

Then there were the crowds of angry children, throwing rocks at stadium construction workers. The kids were tired of waiting in vain for schools to be built after the community provided cheap land for the football stadium.

Yet if Nelspruit, a stop on the way to the famous Kruger game park, faced extraordinary problems on the road to the World Cup, the solutions typify what it has taken to get ready for the tournament across South Africa: determined politicians, persistent nudging from FIFA and the wisdom to lower expectations when necessary.

Nelspruit managed to complete its 46,000-seat stadium at a cost of just under $125 million last year and will be among the nine cities hosting games when the monthlong soccer tournament opens in June, just 100 days from Tuesday.

This is the first time the main event for the world’s most popular sport is coming to Africa, and its host is a developing country plagued by high crime, unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor.

But if all goes well, the World Cup will put South Africa in line for other high profile events, perhaps even the Olympics. And it will give South African leaders and entrepreneurs, particularly in the tourism sector, new visibility and clout.

“I was not ever a skeptic,” said Gillian Saunders, who has tracked South Africa’s preparations as a strategist for Grant Thornton South Africa, which provides risk analysis, financial and other services.

Saunders says some of the estimated 480,000 foreign fans she expects in South Africa (others have lowered the fan figure substantially) may find themselves stuck in traffic after games in a few cities, and that tents and trailers will have to augment hotel rooms.

Such concerns must seem minor to FIFA officials, who were repeatedly asked whether they had plans to hold the World Cup elsewhere if South Africa failed to deliver. FIFA President Sepp Blatter has been among the fiercest proponents of bringing the World Cup to Africa, a continent rich in soccer talent.

South Africans also have been determined, first bidding unsuccessfully for the 2006 games, then bringing anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela to Switzerland in 2004 to help make their 2010 case to FIFA. Mandela told FIFA’s decision makers about listening to a World Cup on the radio while imprisoned on Robben Island.

“Football was the only joy to prisoners,” he said. “As football generated hope on Robben Island, hosting this World Cup will give a certain meaning to this hope.”

As he ushered in the new year, President Jacob Zuma told South Africans the World Cup made 2010 as critical a year in their history as 1994, when apartheid ended.

“We have won the greatest marketing opportunity of our time, the rights to host the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup,” Zuma said. “Together as all South Africans, we must make this one of the most successful projects we have even undertaken as a nation!”

Blocks met along the way included:

— A 68,000-seat stadium in the tourism mecca of Cape Town was delayed by residents who complained their tranquility and views would be ruined, and its cost of 4.45 billion rands ($550 million) was much higher than originally budgeted.

— New, government-run rapid bus transit systems to supplement the erratic and often dangerous private minibus services on which commuters in South Africa’s metropolitan centers have had to rely were fiercely and at times violently resisted by the private operators.

— Stadium workers across the country went on strike for a week in July 2009. Some workers were earning about $300 a month, but informal or casual laborers were taking home less than $100. They ended the strike after getting an increase of 12 percent, below their earlier demand of 13 percent.

But nowhere were the problems as difficult as in Nelspruit, nestled in the boulder-strewn hills of eastern South Africa.

The government of the province that includes Nelspruit had to take over running the municipality, firing all council members and the mayor, after charges and countercharges of corruption in the awarding of contracts for World Cup work brought government to a standstill.

Differ Mogale, the municipality’s 2010 coordinator, said mistakes were inevitable when a municipality with a population of some 700,000 took on something on the scale of hosting World Cup events, even if only four games will be played in Nelspruit.

“It was a challenge of understanding this huge project that we had to deal with,” Mogale said in an interview. “We’d never dealt with spending $3.2 billion over three years.”

Mogale said city officials learned along the way about tightening employment and contract rules to guard against graft. If there was corruption, Mogale said, there were also a feisty media to expose it and police and courts to deal with the accused.

The council speaker who had publicly condemned corruption surrounding World Cup contracts, Jimmy Mohlala, was shot and killed in January 2009. Lassy Chiwayo, sent to Nelspruit by the governing African National Congress to revive local government in 2008, is not alone in believing Mohlala was killed by people who believed he blocked them from getting World Cup contracts.

“I can say without any shred of doubt that the huge money involved did create interests,” Chiwayo said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in some circles I’m defined as the enemy,” Chiwayo said in an interview. “But I came here with a job to do.”

Chiwayo said he had two instructions from the ANC: “Go fix that municipality. Do all you can to ensure that you save the host city status.”

Nelspruit has had support from the regional government to get on track. For example, after FIFA questioned whether the municipality would be equipped with proper emergency services, the province stepped in. It decreed that instead of using a local emergency services network, construction would be speeded on another, regional center that would otherwise have been completed after the World Cup.

Attempts have been made to accommodate poor residents of the province, who have at times felt shunted aside.

Nomuso Khathi, a provincial official working on World Cup projects, was in charge of setting up viewing areas with big screen TVs, stages for pre-game entertainment, playgrounds for younger fans and other amenities in 18 towns and cities in Mpumalanga, the province that includes Nelspruit.

Mpumalanga is one of the country’s poorest provinces. Many here won’t be able to afford even the tickets sharply discounted for South Africans, so Khathi’s free public viewing areas, known as PVAs, were as close as they were going to come to the Cup.

“When we were still dreaming, we wanted to have one PVA in every locality,” she said. Instead, because of lack of funds, there will be three for the entire province. Still, it’s something.

To build the stadium, construction teams made offices of two brick schools near the site. The students were moved into prefab classrooms, with promises new schools would be built.

Wendy Mabuza, 17, said she did not join the sometimes violent demonstrations over being moved staged by other Cyril Clark Secondary School students. But, she said, “they were right to protest, because the temporary school is small and the classes are small. We can’t concentrate.”

Work finally started on the new schools last year, and students are expected to move out of the cramped prefabs before the World Cup begins.

Mayor Chiwayo, who served six years on Robben Island for his activities as an underground ANC operative during the fight against apartheid, is determined to look forward.

“An international gift that was given to South Africa by Nelson Mandela, Sepp Blatter … became a basis for divisions, fights, instability,” Chiwayo said. But now, he said, his municipality has shown “some visible signs of progress, and that change can come from very difficult circumstances.”

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