Friday, June 4, 2010

The social carbon offsetting of the World Cup

In a recent article in The Star (03/06/10 - 'From dust bowl to delight in only 12 hours'), one of the Johannesburg daily papers, an interview with a local living next to Orlando Stadium ended with the quote, "If we had lights, at least people will be able to see how beautiful it is here". This is the paradox of South Africa's World Cup; the world class stadia, sporting facilities and accommodation alongside houses and shacks sometimes without basic provisions such as electricity and running water. Jo'burg is a city of contrasts; the juxtaposition of the wealthy district of Sandton alongside the impoverished township of Alexandra on the horizon serves as a reminder of the inequality of the apartheid era but more importantly of the economic and social inequality that still remains in the Rainbow Nation.

The planting of trees and shrubs in the Orlando Stadium precinct is like a social carbon offsetting program; it makes people feel better by doing it but it doesn't solve any fundamental problems. Living in a house without electricity next to some pleasant greenery is still living in a house without electricity, no matter what the window dressing. Of course, it's not a simple case of the haves and have nots, white and black, city and township; life in South Africa is far more complex than that. Yet it's hard to escape these dichotomies sometimes. 

Listening to the radio this morning as they were excitedly covering the first train to run on the new advanced Gautrain system, which links part of norther Jo'burg with the airport, I lost count how many times they used the phrase "first world" to describe it. This left me wondering where they thought they were living. Do they see South Africa as a 'third world' country? What was so exciting about a new train when this was unlikely to affect the vast majority of the city's residents? For me, the truth is that only a small section of the population is ever going to use it, generally those white-collar workers in the north of the city. This leads to the question who is the World Cup really going to benefit? FIFA for one and certain sporting and political elites but is it anything more than a short-term boost (is it even that)? Granted, certain infrastructure projects (i.e. road upgrades, increased internet capacity) will have benefits unseen day to day but the World Cup is not the only catalyst for such things. The stark reality of mega-sports events is that it costs a lot more than planned and the tangible economic benefits far less than expected. The same will happen in Brazil 2014 and the winning bids for World Cups 2018 and 2022.

Plant trees and make the place look nice by all means. Just don't tell me that it's good for the economy. And that Soweto resident still doesn't have electricity.

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