Bringing Cup to Africa meant overcoming challenges

Bringing Cup to Africa meant overcoming challenges

Published Jun. 8, 2010 1:59 p.m. ET

A battle over the money to build World Cup infrastructure brought down Nelspruit's municipal government and may have even led to the slaying of a politician.

And then there were the crowds of angry children throwing rocks at construction workers, tired of waiting in vain for schools to be built after the community provided cheap land for the football stadium.

If Nelspruit, a sleepy stop on the way to the famous Kruger game park, faced extraordinary problems on the road to the World Cup, the fixes typify what it took to get ready across South Africa: determined politicians, persistent nudging from FIFA, help from experienced foreigners and the wisdom to lower expectations when necessary.

Nelspruit managed to complete its 46,000-seat stadium at a cost of just under $1 million last year and will be among the nine cities hosting games when the monthlong football tournament opens on June 11 in Johannesburg.


The main event of the world's most popular sport has come to Africa for the first time, its host a developing country plagued by high crime and unemployment, and a widening gap between rich and poor.

If all goes well, it will put South Africa in line for other high profile events, perhaps even the Olympics. And it will give South African leaders and entrepreneurs, particularly in the tourism sector, new visibility and clout.

``I was not ever a skeptic,'' said Gillian Saunders, who has tracked South Africa's preparations as a strategist for Grant Thornton South Africa, which provides risk analysis, financial and other services.

Saunders said some of the estimated 450,000 foreign fans she expects to flock to South Africa may find themselves stuck in traffic after games in a few cities, and that tents and trailers will have to augment hotel rooms. But such concerns must seem minor to organizers reflecting on the early days, when they were repeatedly asked whether they had plans to hold the World Cup elsewhere if South Africa failed to deliver.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter has been among the fiercest proponents of bringing the World Cup to Africa, a continent that has produced international football stars.

South Africans have been determined, first bidding unsuccessfully for the 2006 tournament, then bringing anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela to Switzerland in 2004 to help make its 2010 case to FIFA. Mandela told FIFA's decision makers about listening to a World Cup on the radio while imprisoned on Robben Island.

``Football was the only joy to prisoners,'' Mandela said. ``As football generated hope on Robben Island, hosting this World Cup will give a certain meaning to this hope.''

As he ushered in the New Year, President Jacob Zuma told South Africans the World Cup made 2010 as critical a year in their history as 1994, when apartheid ended.

``We have won the greatest marketing opportunity of our time, the rights to host the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup,'' Zuma said in his New Year's address to the nation. ``Together as all South Africans, we must make this one of the most successful projects we have even undertaken as a nation.''

Blocks met along the way included:

- A 68,000-seat stadium in the tourism mecca of Cape Town was delayed by residents who complained their tranquility and views would be ruined, and its cost of 4.45 billion rands ($550 million) was much higher than originally budgeted.

- New, government-run rapid bus transit systems to supplement the erratic and often dangerous private minibus services on which commuters in South Africa's metropolitan centers had had to rely were fiercely and at times violently resisted by the private operators.

- Stadium workers across the country went on strike for a week in July 2009. Some workers were earning about $300 a month, but informal or casual laborers were taking home less than $100. They ended the strike after getting an increase of 12 percent, below their earlier demand of 13 percent.

But nowhere were the problems as difficult as in Nelspruit, nestled in the boulder-strewn hills of eastern South Africa.

The government of the province that includes Nelspruit had to take over running the municipality, firing all council members and the mayor, after charges and countercharges of corruption in the awarding of contracts for World Cup work brought government to a standstill.

Differ Mogale, the municipality's 2010 coordinator, said mistakes were inevitable when a town with a population of 21,000 took on something on the scale of hosting World Cup events, even if only four games will be played in Nelspruit.

``It was a challenge of understanding this huge project that we had to deal with,'' Mogale said. ``We'd never dealt with spending $3.2 billion over three years.''

Mogale said city officials learned along the way about tightening employment and contract rules to guard against graft. If there was corruption, Mogale said, there were also a feisty media to expose it and police and courts to deal with the accused.

The council speaker who had publicly condemned corruption surrounding World Cup contracts, Jimmy Mohlala, was shot and killed in January 2009. Lassy Chiwayo, sent to Nelspruit by the governing African National Congress to revive local government in 2008, is not alone in believing Mohlala was killed by people who believed he blocked them from getting World Cup contracts.

``I can say without any shred of doubt that the huge money involved did create interests,'' said Chiwayo, who served six years on Robben Island for his activities as an underground ANC operative during the fight against apartheid.

``I wouldn't be surprised if in some circles I'm defined as the enemy,'' Chiwayo said. ``But I came here with a job to do.''

Chiwayo said he had two instructions from the ANC: ``Go fix that municipality. Do all you can to ensure that you save the host city status.''

Nelspruit did not have to go it alone. When FIFA, for example, questioned whether the municipality was on track with emergency services, the province stepped in. It decreed that instead of using a local emergency services network, construction should be speeded on another, regional center that would otherwise have been completed after the World Cup.

Zwakeli Maseko, deputy manager of the regional disaster management unit, recently surveyed the nearly completed building where police, fire, rescue, traffic and medical services experts would be able to work together, sharing information and expertise and streamlining decision-making.

He said putting construction crews on longer shifts to meet his new deadline added to the costs, but not only was he getting his building faster because of the World Cup, he was getting better technology than originally planned because of FIFA specifications.

Nomuso Khathi, a provincial official working on World Cup projects, wasn't so fortunate. She was in charge of setting up viewing areas with big screen TVs, stages for pre-game entertainment, playgrounds for younger fans and other amenities in 18 towns and cities in Mpumalanga, the province that includes Nelspruit.

Mpumalanga is one of the country's poorest provinces. Many here won't be able to afford even the tickets sharply discounted for South Africans, so Khathi's free public viewing areas, known as PVAs, were as close as they were going to come.

``When we were still dreaming, we wanted to have one PVA in every locality,'' she said.

Instead, because of lack of funds, there will be three for the entire province.

Poor residents of the province have at times felt shunted aside. To build the stadium, construction teams made offices of two brick schools near the site. The students were moved into prefab classrooms, with promises new schools would be built.

Wendy Mabuza, a 17-year-old student, said she did not join the sometimes violence demonstrations staged by other Cyril Clark Secondary School students. But, she said, ``they were right to protest, because the temporary school is small and the classes are small. We can't concentrate.''

Work finally started on the new schools last year, and students were expected to move out of the cramped prefabs before the World Cup begins.

Mayor Chiwayo is determined to look forward.

``An international gift that was given to South Africa by Nelson Mandela, Sepp Blatter ... became a basis for divisions, fights, instability,'' Chiwayo said. But now, the municipality has shown ``some visible signs of progress, and that change can come from very difficult circumstances.''