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South Africa’s World Cup Brims with Broken Promises

Michelle Chen

 by In These Times

South Africa is the center of world this week, kicking off the
first-ever World Cup Games on the African continent. But as the cameras
pan across green fields and lavish festivities, labor activists are
keeping their eye on the ball.

According to a report on soccer ball manufacturing
from the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), more than a decade
since the sporting goods industry was scandalized over rampant child
labor abuses, the exploitation continues. In Pakistan, India, China and
Thailand, ILRF says, "precarious labor, low wages, poor working
conditions and violations of freedom of association and collective
bargaining rights are found in the value chain of hand-stitched soccer
balls."

As degraded child workers in Asia supply the games played by other youth around the world, FIFA promotes a platform of "corporate social responsibility." Since the late 1990s, following international condemnation of labor abuses in Pakistan, FIFA has established a Social Responsibility code,
"pledged its commitment to fight child labour and has been supporting
the International Labour Organization (ILO) and its International
Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in its efforts
towards eradicating child labour from the soccer ball industry in
Pakistan."

Additionally, FIFA now plans to develop
twenty "Football for Hope Centres to promote public health, education
and football in disadvantaged communities across Africa," based on
missions such as rehabilitating children with disabilities and
promoting the socioeconomic advancement of women.

But the ILRF report suggests that the glossy charity projects are
overshadowed by the failure of the industry to live up to the
principles of the 1997 Atlanta Agreement, including both abolishing child labor and fostering rehabilitation and education in manufacturing communities.

In India, soccer balls are at the center of a deeply entrenched
labor hierarchy: "Half of India's stitchers live below the poverty
line, and 90% of these households are part of the ‘untouchables'
caste.... Under such conditions, families have no choice but to make
their children work."

The ball isn't the only symbol of oppression at play at the games; the lavish stadiums sit astride signs of racial and economic inequalities that have exploded in recent years. According to Khadija Sharife of the South Africa-based Center for Civil Soviety,
"estimated expenditure for new stadiums totalled US$1,346.9 billion,"
and FIFA "has already cashed in" on the spending spree spawned by
aggressive overdevelopment leading up to the games. Sharife argues,
"Fifa's Cup erodes rather than aids SA's political economy," and the
country will see little long-term benefit, as job creation and tourism
have fallen short of rosy expectations.

Critics in South Africa even doubt the potential to boost national
pride, as the games mainly cater to affluent foreigners and price out a
huge portion of Africans. Columnist Andile Mngxitama told the UK Independent:

The World Cup is a colonial playground for the rich and for a few
wannabes in the so-called South African elite... Whereas in the past we
were conquered, the South African government has simply invited the
colonisers this time.

The ANC government's branding attempt in fact started showing cracks
long before the kickoff. In a 2008 issue of Against the Current, Sam Ross reported:

In September 2007, construction workers building the new Green Point
stadium in Cape Town demanded increased compensation for travel costs
to the worksite. After two strikes in a month, 1,000 workers were
locked out of the stadium, which will host the World Cup Semi-finals.

In
early October 2007... FIFA Organizing Committee's Chief Competitions
Officer Dennis Mumble claimed the committee was "very happy with the
progress being made and believe more than ever that we are on track to
host an extremely successful 2010 World Cup." He made no mention of
labor disputes or of the fact more than one million South African
workers went on strike between June and October.

Since then, strikes have popped up regularly, including a major transport union strike in May. Meanwhile, class strife has swelled with the threat of displacement. A ban on street vendors has stoked public frustration. And the longstanding Black township Joe Slovo in the Western Cape, Socialist Worker reports that some 20,000 people have resisted the authorities' attempts to evict them:

Zodwa Nsibande is the youth league secretary of Abahlali base
Mjondolo, a movement of shack dwellers set up to protect and advocate
for people living in shacks.

"People are being forced from
their homes and treated like animals," she told Socialist Worker. "We
live under constant threat. People are scared to move because they know
they can't come back - they will have built something on the land."...

In South Africa the police have also been instructed to clear the streets of homeless people for the World Cup.

Isaac Lewis, who is homeless, has been arrested six times in the past month for loitering.

"Police harassment is increasing," he says. "They want to make a
good impression for the foreigners coming. We are like insects to them
- like flies."

And so South Africa joins a long tradition of mass sporting events causing mass displacement. A study by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions,
published in 2007 ahead of the Beijing Olympics, found that "The
Olympic Games have displaced more than two million people in the last
20 years, disproportionately affecting minorities such as the homeless,
the poor, Roma and African-Americans."

It's inevitable, perhaps, that in a sporting event that draws
together people of all classes, creeds and colors, shameful paradoxes
will emerge: the interplay between child workers in Pakistan and sports
industry marketing agendas; the dissonance between South Africa's
overbuilt stadiums and the poverty of the workers who poured their
sweat into the concrete.

In such a starkly divided polity, Udesh Pillay, co-editor of Development and Dreams: The urban legacy of the 2010 Football World Cup, told the AP that the Cup "now is the emotional glue that holds the country together."

After the last match is played, South Africans will seek another goal
to bind the fractured nation together. That pursuit, symbolically tied
to the fate of the entire Global South, should compel South Africa to
return to the suspended vision of equity that defeated apartheid, but today remains an unfinished triumph.


© 2021 In These Times

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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