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article imageOp-Ed: Africa hosts World Cup amidst devastating poverty

By Asad Yawar     Jun 11, 2010 in World
The hosting of a World Cup in a continent whose people have suffered – and continue to endure – indescribable privations in the modern era may come to be regarded as one of the great postmodern illusions.
Twenty years after Nelson Mandela's improbable emergence from Victor Verster Prison into liberty and global adulation en route to entering the pantheon of statesmen, South Africa is hosting arguably the greatest sporting tournament of them all: the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the first edition of soccer's most compelling competition to be staged on African soil. Ten brand new or significantly redeveloped stadia with a total capacity of 570,000 people have been constructed; a €2bn transportation infrastructure upgrade, including a metamorphosed air hub at Johannesburg which can now handle 30 million passengers a year, is in place; and the satellite teleport and telecommunications network to be used to relay images from the World Cup will be able to support a transmission capacity of 40 gigabytes per second. A cumulative audience of around 26 billion telespectators will bear witness to the reality that after colonialist depredation, economic implosion and biblical famine, Africa's moment has finally arrived.
Yet there is another narrative, as bleak as it is unseductive, that would suggest that the hosting of a World Cup in a continent whose people have suffered – and continue to endure – indescribable privations in the modern era may come to be regarded as one of the great postmodern illusions: a combination of high technology, mass entertainment and a smattering of prestige projects could distort and deny the devastating facts of existence for the majority of people in contemporary Africa.
While the days of the ilk of King Leopold II - a Belgian monarch who, through his status as sole shareholder and chairman of the Association Internationale Africaine holding company privately owned the entire Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908, asset-stripping the territory into near-oblivion and killing upwards of ten million Congolese in the process - are gone, the African continent is still confronted with numerous existential challenges.
Agro-imperialism is one such dilemma. Countries that are rich in hard currency but vulnerable in terms of being able to feed their future populations - these include Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Korea, Egypt, China and many others - have acquired up to 50 million hectares of African farmland in the last few years, including in starvation-haunted states such as Ethiopia; this process threatens to confiscate the continent's food supply and exhaust its water reserves. Africa's urban dwellers are grappling with a similarly sobering prognosis: by 2030 it is estimated that out of a total African population of 760 million, more than 70% will live in slums or shanty towns. Successfully addressing these conditions may take some time: the slum relocation efforts in Kibera, a mesmerising sprawl in south-west Nairobi that is at once reminiscent of the dystopias depicted in Blade Runner and City of God, are running so far behind that according to one estimate the clearance programme will not be completed until the year 3187.
Africa also faces challenges in the more immediate term. On a macro level, many of the weak authoritarian states which characterize the continent are disintegrating, with serious consequences for their citizenries, as well as the regions in which these countries are located. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the Democratic Republic of Congo: in an eerie and tragic recapitulation of the fate of the Congo Free State under King Leopold II, this Middle African behemoth is presently on the brink of nirvana, with millions of its citizens dead as a result of the Second Congo War, its terrain being gouged for conflict minerals by all-comers. More mundanely, vast numbers of Africans are still denied life's most essential amenities: a recent WHO/UNICEF report notes that 234 million people in Africa are forced to practice open defecation because they do not have access to toilets.
One of the great ironies of South Africa's hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup is that it comes at a time when, for all the pretensions of being the continent’s flagship state, South Africa resembles a thread that is being woven into the more prosaic African narrative. Between 1995 and 2002, life expectancy is estimated to have dropped from 61.4 years to 51.4 years; the average South African lifespan in 2015 will be 30% shorter than it was twenty years earlier. According to the United Nations Development Programme, an eye-watering 42.9% of South Africans are scraping by on a daily income of less than US$2; construction labourers who have worked on the World Cup venues will not be able to afford to enter the stadia that are the creation of their sweat.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup may be a defining moment in how the rest of the world perceives Africa, and perhaps even in how Africa perceives itself. But two decades after one of the continent's most cherished sons emerged from the wilderness of incarceration to lead his nation into a brave new era, the first African World Cup serves as an alluring fairy tale in which more detail is lost with each re-telling.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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