Social Issues of World Cup in South Africa

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This page by Ramsey Al-Khalil

Edited By Caroline Yarborough


Social and economic Considerations of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa 

Nelson Mandela made a claim that “the World Cup [would] help unify people and if there is one thing in this planet that has the power to bind people, it’s soccer.”  However, the use of football to forge a national identify had to overcome the deeply engrained divisions in post-apartheid South Africa.  The 2010 FIFA World Cup was one of the largest sporting events in history.  Leading up to it, there were many social, economic, and political issues that were bound to make an impact on the tournament.  By nature, soccer inspires some of the most profound showcases of patriotism in the world. In contrast to many instances, where competition is fueled by passion for the sport, racial and xenophobic tensions were bound to arise in this World Cup, given the present-day atmosphere in South Africa.  Internal disputes, along with the economic frustration experienced by the South African population, overshadowed some of the joy in celebrating world unity.  Nonetheless, the 2010 tournament is considered by many to have been a success.  Here, I aim to provide a brief overview of the social and economic implications of the previous FIFA World Cup.  Click here to learn more about the issues related to the tournament in Brazil.

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High Hopes 

“Ke nako” is a phrase that was coined before the 2010 FIFA World Cup; it translates to “it is time” and refers to the readiness of South Africa to host a global event (Wilson).  This phrase was chosen as the World Cup slogan in order to portray Africa in a positive way; oftentimes, the media depicts the continent as a “backward place of poverty, conflict, dictatorships, and corruption,” so FIFA wanted to combat this by promoting Ubuntu, or African humanism.  It’s argued that hosting the World Cup garnered a “reputational boost for South Africa that could help bring inward investment and visitors.”  Some of the effects can be observed by considering the personal accounts relayed in the book Africa’s World Cup.  In it, Marc Fletcher describes his own experiences in South Africa.  Specifically, he mentions how people travelled to work on the morning of the opening match “with a briefcase in one hand and a vuvuzela in the other” (Fletcher; Alegi).  He also mentions that travelling on the bus from white suburbs to predominantly black townships was “symbolically significant: it challenged the city’s de facto segregation.”  This was one of the first images of people ignoring the travails of everyday life and supporting the same team.  One of the major quirks of the tournament was the amount of people walking around in previously considered dangerous parts of cities at night.  However, major economic and social concerns still remained beneath much of the public joy.

Map of Countries Living in Poverty.  South Africa is at an alarmingly high rate.

Map of Countries Living in Poverty. South Africa is at an alarmingly high rate. Courtesy of

When a nation hosts the FIFA World Cup, it’s granted an unfathomably large level of responsibility.  Not only does this include the necessity of ensuring fan and player safety, but it also involves providing everybody with suitable [and affordable] transportation, accommodations, and dining.  In 2010, the Wall Street Journal published an article in which they claimed, “The South African government has used the World Cup as a catalyst for development, and to address social ills of crime and race tensions. It has claimed success on all fronts” (Wonacott and Stewart).  The tournament embodied the widely held belief that soccer was an opportunity to unite South Africans under a single flag- something that hadn’t truly been achieved since the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  Despite the positive outlook from some sources, others didn’t share the quite so optimistic perspective.  Prince Mashele, the South African executive director for the Centre for Politics and Research prophetically proposed, “All the problems that bedevil this country will resurface” (Wonacott and Stewart).

Adding to Development Challenges

One of the most well documented examples of inequality prior to and during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa was Blikkiesdorp or “Tin Can Town”.  In a powerful piece from the Guardian, David Smith opens with a vivid description of the scene from South Africa.  “Children squint as wind whips the grey sand into their faces. A teenager braves the flies and stench of a leaking outdoor toilet to draw water from a standpipe. He stares vacantly along regimented rows of corrugated iron shacks encircled by a tall, concrete fence. No grass or trees grow here” (Smith).  The people who live in Tin Can Town were relocated in order to create an illusory image of South African cities for incoming soccer fans from around the globe.  Many of its inhabitants claim that the living conditions are harsher than the townships created by the government before the end of apartheid.  The columns of one-room shacks were even cited as being “disturbingly reminiscent of District 9,” further citing the horror of living in these ghettos.  With barbed wire surrounding it, no space to sleep, no running water, and consistent brutality by the police, occupants were living in a manmade version of hell.  While the World Cup was being associated with promises of infrastructure improvements and a higher standard of living, Tin Can Town remains a tragic example of the regression in South Africa.


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Furthermore, people anticipated antigovernment protests predicated on the fact that the nation spent billions of dollars on new stadiums while many of its citizens living in cities and townships lacked electricity, clean water and decent housing.   Workers building the facilities for the 2010 World Cup threatened on multiple occasions to walk off the job to press demands for higher pay in order to match the increased cost of living.  With such a notably unequal economic divide, these claims were more than justified.   In fact, poverty was [and still is] a major issue in South Africa.  Of a population of nearly 50 million, there are only 5 million taxpayers but 13 million people who receive some sort of social grant.  Many argue this is not a sustainable economic model.  By creating more construction jobs for the World Cup, the government hoped to increase the capable taxpayer population and finally generate some much-needed revenue.  This strategy was actually counterproductive; the construction jobs only provided temporary employment and created a false sense of national economic improvement.  At the time of the World Cup, South Africa was ranked 129th in the Human Development Index (HDI) scale, which measures education, life expectancy, and standard of living.  It is also the “most unequal country on the planet” (Rodrigues). In 2006, 34.1% of South Africans lived on less than $2 a day; in 2009, that number jumped to 42.9%.  Even more alarming, life expectancy supposedly fell by 13 years in a similar time period.  Apparently, this fall is attributable both to “Thabo Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS denialism” and “the way income and inequality and poverty continue to impact the disease” (Rodrigues). Adding fuel to the fire, the fact that the government spent 33 billion rand on the World Cup is also “testament to there being no concern for the national welfare among its decision makers.”  The money spent and tactics used during the South African World Cup are even more appalling, given the country’s brutal history of forced removals, including evicting the urban poor and rounding up the homeless- dumping them into “temporary relocation areas” and “transit camps” in order to create the right brand attributes.

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Protesting Workforce

In anticipation of the socially and economically driven movements and protests before and during the World Cup, heavy police presence in the streets was correctly anticipated (Wonacott and Stewart).  Specifically, the WSJ predicted anti-immigrant violence because of perception that black-owned businesses were handing coveted jobs to immigrants from elsewhere in Africa due to their cheap labor.  Even more violence was expected to occur in the form of clashes between picketers and police during strikes by transport workers and stadium security guards.  Once again, these occurrences emphasize the magnitude of economic disadvantage that many South Africans continue to face.  In fact, these protesting workers were even considered fortunate, by the alarming portion of the population that was (and is) unemployed.


Social Tensions

Xenophobic attacks as well as high levels of tension between local South Africans and African immigrants also hindered the achievement of Ubuntu.  For example, the “corrective rape” of lesbians in townships occurred and was justified by men wanting to “cure” the women of their homosexuality.  Physical abuse and sexual violence of women continues to be predominant in South Africa and must be addressed by a nation that “has all the constitutional and government mechanisms to address” the issue, yet “has failed spectacularly to improve the lives of poor women” (Vandermerwe).  Some of the xenophobia evident before and after the 2010 World Cup can be attributed to the legacy of apartheid, the black self-hatred, and the assumptions of inferiority that are unavoidably engrained into South African culture.  However, much of it seemed to have been a result of misdirected frustration at the nation’s inability to “deliver basic services and social uplift to the very poorest and most disenfranchised communities in society” (Vandermerwe).  This marginalization is evident when you consider FIFA’s organization of ticket purchases for local fans.  This process seemed to have been biased against the inclusion of black working class individuals.  Ticket prices accounted for about 10% of a working classman’s monthly earnings, the instructions were in English only, and they required credit cards to be purchased online.  This limited access resulted in fewer working class fans than anticipated in attendance at matches (Fletcher; Alegi).   FIFA’s stranglehold on the market for merchandise also sterilized the African experience; local vendors selling soft drinks, barbeque chicken, and roasted meat were “absent or obscured at World Cup venues” (Fletcher; Alegi).


Positive Change and Takeaways

Among all the social and economic muck, there were some positive highlights from the 2010 FIFA World Cup.  One of the bright spots of the tournament was the positive impact that the sport left on South African youth.  Prior to the tournament, high levels of vandalism, bullying and exclusion were prevalent in Hillbrow, one of Johannesburg’s most infamous areas.  After the Dutch team sponsored the renovation of a football field in the heart of the neighborhood, interactions among the children seemed to change.  On the wall, there are rules written that the children are obligated to follow; they include respect, fair play and social involvement” (Iob).  Hopefully in upcoming World Cups, the host country’s economic and social issues are granted more attention than they were in South Africa. The argument, that such a large economic, cultural, political and social event such as the World Cup will only temporarily or artificially resolve many internal problems that a host-country may face, will continue to exist as a reality until nations find a way to implement more sustainable changes in preparation for the tournament.


Works Cited:

Alegi, Peter , and Chris Bolsmann. Specific excerpts used by Marc Fletcher and Meg Vandermerwe. Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Print.

Iob, Emilie. “South Africa Struggles to Maintain World Cup Legacy.” Voice of America. VOA News, 18 Oct 2012. Web. 3 Dec 2013. <>.

Rodrigues, Chris. “South Africa’s World Cup is a disgrace.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 6 May 2010. Web. 3 Dec 2013. <>.

Wilson, Bill. “World Cup ‘rebrands’ South African economy.” BBC Business News. BBC, 12 Jul 2010. Web. 3 Dec 2013. <>.

Wonacott, Peter , and Robb M. Stewart. “Cup’s Glow Can’t Hide South Africa’s Issues.” Wall Street Journal. (June 23 2010): n. page. Web. 3 Dec. 2013. <>.


How to cite this article: “Social Issues of World Cup in Africa!,” Written by Ramsey Al-Khalil (2013), Soccer Politics Pages, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, (accessed on (date)). – See more at:

6 thoughts on “Social Issues of World Cup in South Africa

  1. maddenvip

    This is just another example of a FIFA that puts sponsorship and funding ahead of quality and growth for football around the world.

  2. Caroline Yarborough

    I would like to edit this page as well for the edit assignment

  3. Pingback: World Cup: Reasons Why the Hosts Do Not Always Win

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