Will The World Cup Have Lasting Effects on South Africa?

Story posted July 02, 2010

Associate Professor of History David M. Gordon is an expert on southern and central African history and economic and political development. He's also a native South African who, like millions around the globe, has been glued to the television during the 2010 World Cup games, which are being played in South Africa.

While the games were still under way, Associate Director for Academic Communication Selby Frame met with Gordon to get his take on soccer, South Africa, and possible longer-term effects of the World Cup on Africa.

david gordon
David Gordon

What do you think about South Africa's early exit from the games?

I'm not surprised that the African teams haven't done that well, based on past performances, but I think we were all hoping for a greater presence of African teams. South Africa was ranked very lowly, so we didn't have high hopes, but still it was a disappointment not to go beyond the group stage.

This is in great contrast to other games that South Africa is better at on the international stage: rugby and cricket, which are traditionally white sports learned at the best schools. These schools are no longer just white schools, they're multiracial, but still they're the wealthiest schools and a significant proportion of students are white.

Soccer, which is more popular among historically black schools is not as well organized and does not receive the same support. My feeling is that the failure of South African soccer has a lot to do with inadequate training of young soccer players at the school level. It's actually an indication of one of the great challenges and failures in the South African society at the moment: transforming the educational system. It's really at school where kids should start to play sports. It should be part of a well-rounded education.

How much can sports raise a country's profile or be effective in terms of diplomacy or global trade or economy?

I think what the World Cup has done for South Africans is generate a certain degree of national pride. You certainly are getting the feeling of a great deal of good will among South Africans. Where there have been racial or political conflicts, they have been set aside for the moment.

An interesting dimension to this in that over the last few years one of the real challenges South African society has faced is xenophobia toward other African countries and immigrants in South Africa. From what I hear, there has been greater understanding and appreciation of African immigrants within South Africa.

Will that goodwill last?

Bowdoin South African Scholars Weigh In
siphiwe libese

"Overall now, we have a better infrastructure because they were investing in the World Cup," says Siphiwe Lebese.

Read what Lebese and three other South African Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellows had to say about the World Cup—which they missed in order to come to Bowdoin for an intensive summer program.


I think the chances are quite slim. It's a limited time period, but I think the last 10 years has been a learning experience about becoming part of the continent. Perhaps this is a bit of a jump in that learning experience.

It sounds strange, but South Africans don't know much about the rest of the continent. The country was really cut off from the rest of Africa, it was a pariah nation until 1994. In addition, white South Africans saw themselves belonging more closely to Europe.

Apartheid ended, but economic circumstances across the continent encouraged many Africans to come to South Africa because the economy there was better than in their countries. They competed for not just jobs, but living space and land - which are at a premium in South Africa. This has led to a conflict.

For all of those reasons, South Africans relationship with the other Africans -- not at the diplomatic or formal political level -- but at the social level, has not been great for the last couple of years. Perhaps the World Cup will signal somewhat of a change in this regard.

Is there anything the world can take away from the World Cup in South Africa?

It's an economy and society capable of constructing these magnificent stadiums and displaying its wealth, but at the same time, behind that, are huge inequalities. Those inequalities are sometimes felt by visitors. For example, there is crime, corruption, poverty, all of which point to the other side of this sometimes grandiose wealth. It's a society with a great deal of ingenuity and capability, but that has not necessarily been applied yet to solving its most pressing social problems.

Could the country be worse off after the games are over? Might there be a backlash?

There will likely be a post-honeymoon period of disappointment. There was a lot of political and labor unrest going into this period, and to a certain amount during the World Cup. South Africa has quite a strong labor movement. Going into the World Cup one thought organized labor was going to assert itself. because it's an ideal time to bargain. That only happened to a limited extent. It may occur after the games as workers turn from soccer back to their daily lives, Conflicts within the ruling alliance and party will also re-emerge. I don't think this will boil over into the collapsed of authority or government or anything like that, but I don't think that the harmonious moment of the World Cup is going to continue long into the future.

As a South African yourself, what do you hope the World Cup does for the country?

I hope that South Africans would use this event to encourage more harmonious relationships and to direct attention towards the poor people in society, something that hasn't been focused on enough in the post-apartheid era.

I wish that South Africans would apply themselves as much to the transformation of their society as they have to building these stadiums and their international image. South Africa plays an important role diplomatically and politically already. It's already accomplished this miraculous post-apartheid transformation. I've discussed some of the limitations of this transformation, but ending apartheid was an immense victory for human rights. Having that as your international image, having the figure of Mandela to represent that victory, is an excellent international reputation. The World Cup should pale in comparison to that.

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