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As the World Cup Begins in Qatar, South Africa Counts the Cost of Hosting the Tournament in 2010

Joe Walsh explores how the reality of the 2010 World Cup hasn’t matched the hype

The Cape Town stadium built for the 2010 football World Cup. Photo: Alamy

As the World Cup Begins in Qatar, South Africa Counts the Cost of Hosting the Tournament in 2010

Joe Walsh explores how the reality of the 2010 World Cup hasn’t matched the hype

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The most expensive World Cup ever, at an estimated cost of $220 billion, is about to get underway in Qatar. The country has built eight new stadiums for the tournament in and around the capital of Doha, with a combined capacity of 380,000, in a country that has a population of less than three million.

The tournament’s excesses are made even more disturbing when confronted with the well-document abuses of the low-paid workers who built these stadiums. Estimates range from 6,500 to 15,000 migrant labourer deaths on their construction, as even former FIFA President Sepp Blatter has now said that the tournament should not have been awarded to Qatar.

But even a World Cup not shrouded in as much controversy as Qatar’s can still leave significant burdens on a host country.

South Africa’s official cost for hosting the tournament in 2010 was a comparatively paltry $3 billion, the cheapest since France 1998. Yet, despite the optimism with which the tournament was held – the first time on African soil – Blatter has since admitted he and others accepted bribes to select South Africa as the host.

In addition, the lasting legacy of the tournament has turned from one of hope to financial waste.

One of the World Cup stadiums is in the city of Mbombela’s (formerly Nelspruit). The 43,500-seat ‘white giraffe’, a pejorative based on its roof support design, was built from scratch in the city of just 110,000 at a cost of $150 million. In 2009, the city council’s speaker Jimmy Mohlala was assassinated outside his house after investigating corruption involved in the building of the stadium. Mohlala had called for a criminal investigation into the tender process for its construction.

Despite having the local rugby and football team as tenants, neither consistently fill the stadium. The Springbok (the South African rugby team) play to a full house in the white giraffe, but have played there just a handful of times.

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Pierre Voges, former CEO of the Nelson Mandela Bay Development Agency – the organisation responsible for Gqeberha’s (formerly Port Elizabeth) stadium – said in 2013: “If you ask me whether a ($140 million) stadium should have been built in Port Elizabeth, I would say: ‘no’.”

Perhaps the stadium most associated with South Africa’s World Cup bid is that of Cape Town. Nestled between Table Mountain and the sea, its iconic backdrop made it one of the central images of the tournament. Built for $255 million, it too has struggled to survive, with the local rugby team reluctant to move from its home in Newlands, which already held 51,900 people. This ground could have been used for the World Cup, but FIFA wanted the iconic backdrop of Table Mountain, not the suburb of Newlands.

It wasn’t until 2020 that the local rugby team announced that it would move into the stadium, having sold its Newlands ground to developers for demolition. Lesley de Reuck, director of the DHL (formerly Cape Town) Stadium insists it has a successful World Cup legacy.

“There is no doubt the stadium’s financial position has improved,” he said, noting that the stadium has been able to host “numerous sporting events and concerts which otherwise would not have been hosted in the Western Cape.” Given the tearing down of the Newlands ground, it is only one in the province with at least 50,000 seats.

A Lasting Legacy

Yet, it’s not just the stadiums that have remained as expensive and underused monuments to FIFA’s excess. Football’s world governing body likes to boast about how its tournament uplifts societies and catalyses big infrastructure projects that have a lasting positive impact on lives long after the tournament is over.

In South Africa, one such project was the Gautrain.

The 80 kilometre railway network connects 10 station in and around the cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane (which includes Pretoria) and O.R Tambo, the country’s busiest airport, forming “an integral part of South Africa’s 2010 World Cup bid”, according to its project leader, Andrew Van Der Merwe.

Although there was no legal obligation for it to be built in time, FIFA recommended that the Gautrain form the backbone of the local province’s public transport system for the World Cup.

In the end, the Gautrain partially opened three days before the World Cup began, connecting the airport to Sandton, the rich business district in the north of Johannesburg. It became fully operational in 2011 with its budget having ballooned to $1.7 billion from an original estimate of $406 million when it was first announced in 2000, four years before South Africa was awarded the World Cup. Gauteng Province’s entire transport budget was $440 billion for the year 2019/20.

Although it could be argued that car-dominated Gauteng could do with a new, world-class modern transport system, given that millions commute by informal taxis that are often overcrowded and dangerous, the Gautrain has failed to be an effective alternative.

It was planned to carry 130,000 passenger trips a day, yet the pre-COVID ridership figure was 15 million in 2018, approximately 41,000 a day. Like most global public transport systems, it is subsidised by the state.

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Another legacy of the South Africa World Cup that is much harder to quantify is its impact on the country’s power system. Indeed, this system has deteriorated over the past 15 years to the extent that scheduled power cuts took place on 91 of the first 243 days this year. Depending on the situation at the country’s power stations, power cuts can occasionally last for most of the day.

Whole books can, and indeed have, been written about the state of Eskom, the country’s nationalised energy provider, and how it got into this situation, with the finger being pointed at the scandal involving the Gupta family that took hold during Jacob Zuma’s presidency of the country from 2009 to 2018.

However, one factor that can’t be overlooked is the serious neglect given to the maintenance of power stations that began during the World Cup preparations.

With the eyes of the world on South Africa in 2009 and 2010, the Government was desperate to avoid the public relations catastrophe caused by power outages. The decision was subsequently made to keep the lights on no matter what. This meant continuing to use a coal fleet and power stations that were in desperate need of a break, in order for maintenance work to be carried out.

These years have been described as an energy ‘Ponzi scheme’ – in other words, South Africa kept the lights on and things looked good at the time, but the underlying damage eventually caught up with the country.

Though this was far from the prime cause of Eskom’s problems, it is a contributory factor. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has estimated the 2019 cost of power outages to the South African economy at between $3.4 billion and $6.9 billion, while one senior economist, Dr Francois Stofberg, argues the economy could be 10% or $26 billion larger if it was not for the problems at Eskom.

Expensive and under-utilised stadiums and public transport systems, and the collapse of the country’s power stations and national grid: these are all the legacies – to a large or lesser extent – of the 2010 World Cup, that continue to drain South Africa’s scant public resources. But, at least it was a worthwhile exercise for FIFA – the body able to walk away from the event with $656 million more in the bank.

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