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.
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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.