There's Democracy, and Then There's Soccer

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.

To head off soccer skeptics, South African leaders launched preemptive strikes. In a speech after Mbeki's ouster, Zuma said democracy would hum along and, "most importantly, we will be hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup." On his first day in office, according to a statement, Motlanthe called FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter to assure him that deadlines would be met and that "South Africa's hosting of the World Cup is testimony to the achievements of our democracy."

Blatter, in the same statement, said he was "pleased" by the reassurances.

If South Africa is sensitive about perceptions of its readiness, it is not without reason.

Locals were outraged when Blatter told European media this summer that he had a "Plan B" if South Africa was unable to host the event, which comes every four years. In a closely chronicled visit to the country last month, when Mbeki was still president, Blatter took that back, saying that South Africa was also Plan B and Plan C and that he was "absolutely not concerned" about political turmoil.

But Blatter has questioned whether South Africa would have ample accommodations for World Cup visitors and whether it was doing enough to market the event. During his visit, he said he was "disappointed" about the abysmal record of South Africa's national soccer team, Bafana Bafana, which is guaranteed a spot in the 2010 competition.

Local organizers have fired back, saying other host nations' teams have rallied from behind to do well in the tournament. Tourism officials have noted that South Africa, with its wineries and wildlife-filled parks, is plenty used to laying out the welcome mat.

"Last year 9.1 million tourists visited South Africa," Moeketsi Mosola, the nation's tourism chief, told the Times of Johannesburg. "That means we accommodated an average of 650,000 tourists over a four-week period. Why will we not be able to handle 450,000 over the six-week period during the World Cup? FIFA is being economical with the truth."

For their part, most South Africans do not appear to share any of the lingering doubts. The Human Sciences Research Council, a South African think tank, has been studying public sentiment about the World Cup for four years. In data released this week, the council asked South Africans whether the nation would be ready for 2010.

Eighty percent said yes.

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