There's Democracy, and Then There's Soccer

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By Karin Brulliard {vbar}
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 4, 2008

JOHANNESBURG -- As South Africa weathers its most turbulent political period since the end of apartheid, the nation's most-watched leaders -- ousted president, caretaker president and probable president-to-be -- have been rushing to reassure the public that all is definitely well.

The economy is on track, they say. Democracy is safe, they vow.

And so, they stress, is soccer.

"We remain on course to host in 2010 the best World Cup ever -- an African World Cup," Kgalema Motlanthe, the interim president, said in his first presidential address to Parliament last week. "We fully expect to meet every commitment our nation has made to the football world."

South Africa's role as the first African host of the World Cup, one of the globe's largest sporting events, is a huge point of pride for people here, who consider it a chance to show off their country's beauty and modernity and dispel myths about Africa. Clinching the spot was seen as a major victory for President Thabo Mbeki, who was forced from office almost two weeks ago by the ruling party.

But since being named host in 2004, South Africa has battled doubts about whether it is up to the task. Although it is sub-Saharan Africa's most developed country, South Africa is racing to build and update 10 stadiums, modernize its inefficient public transportation system, convert homes into bed-and-breakfasts and hire thousands of police officers to keep more than 400,000 foreign soccer fans safe in a crime-plagued nation where 50 people are murdered each day.

Despite construction delays and cost overruns, organizers insist everything will be done by kickoff. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, has generally agreed.

But it's a serious sore spot for the nation, whose official World Cup Web site proclaims: "Africa's time has come! South Africa is ready!"

So it was no help when politics took a bad turn.

First, tensions skyrocketed after a court ruling suggested Mbeki had pressured prosecutors to file corruption charges against his political rival, and the likely next president, Jacob Zuma.

Next, the African National Congress pushed out Mbeki, thrusting national politics into limbo.

Then, Deputy Finance Minister Jabu Moleketi, the point man for the nation's World Cup budget, resigned from his post, along with several other cabinet members.

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