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The World Cup and lessons from South Africa’s transition

Nicholas van Praag's picture

Who would have thought that rugby could change the world?  Two decades ago the apartheid regime in South Africa was brought down by a range of pressures.  But the clincher for many South Africans was being ostracized from rugby and other global sporting competitions. 

As South Africa prepares to open the 2010 World Cup, the country's passion for sport is offering an equally powerful way of celebrating its full membership in the international community.

With the national team about to square off against Mexico in the first of this year's matches, I am thinking as much about the drama of penalty shoot-outs and the like as lessons of peaceful transition. 

When I was in Cape Town a couple of months ago I visited the city’s brand new football stadium which is squeezed between an up-scale residential neighborhood and the Atlantic Ocean.  It is a pretty amazing structure.  I also visited one of the gritty townships in the Cape Flats area north of the city. It was hard to believe I was in the same country.

The peace process that produced the country’s first one-man one-vote elections in 1994 unleashed a wave of optimism that reverberated around the world.  It took with it the systemic divisions of the apartheid era but South Africa’s trajectory over the intervening years shows how difficult it is to put divisions and violence of the past behind and start over.

When I was a student I could not imagine apartheid would ever be history or that Nelson Mandela would eventually walk free. But it has come to pass and although there are some dark clouds, the country’s accomplishments offer some telling pointers to other societies making the difficult passage from violent conflict to the kind of big tent democracy that holds promise for the future.

South Africa is particularly well known for some innovative organizational forms used during the transition.  The hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) offered wrenching testimony to the horrors of the past and society’s determination to turn the page.  They provided a model that has been exported, not always with the same success, to other troubled corners of the world.

The changes were cemented by the extraordinary vision of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first president.  The magnanimous style of leadership he made his own was central in pulling the nation together after years of struggle and injustice.  His iconic stature on the global stage was matched by the pre-eminent economic and political role the country rapidly assumed on the African continent, boosting South Africans’ sense of national destiny and self-worth.  His leadership helped create resilience to the stresses that often drive countries back into conflict.

For many commentators, however, the sheen is off what was once seen as the South African miracle.  The crime rate is high and the middle and upper classes rely on sophisticated security systems for their safety.  Individual rights are enshrined in the constitution but relations between races are strained.  The rich of all colors live well but the travails of the underclass is brought home by the huge slums that surround the country’s main cities.  I was also struck by a sight I had not expected—white panhandlers on the streets of Cape Town.

At the macro-level, corruption, unemployment, criminality, and economic inequality are all extremely high.  This is ominous because they are indicators that generally correlate closely with state-threatening violence.

Looking back, some people involved in the peace negotiations recognize they made mistakes.  They put too little emphasis on the task of getting young people into jobs.  The very necessary debate on racism, inequality and social marginalization never really happened.  Not enough attention was paid to reforming local government which is responsible for providing many basic services.  And although civil society is active in many parts of the country, it could have done more to deepen democratization and accountability under the new constitution.

There were plenty of missed opportunities.  Had they been seized, the speed and direction of change in South Africa might have been very different.

Amidst the cheers at the World Cup kick-off on Friday we should not forget the sheer power of sport in South Africa’s history.  Perhaps it will provide an opportunity to revisit some unfinished business. If there is one thing we’ve learned from South Africa’s history, it’s that a beautiful game can change the world.


Submitted by Mark H. on
Great write up. Now looking forward to one as regards Saturday's match. You know, something along the lines of "The World Cup and Lessons from the American Revolution".

Dear Nick As I am reading your blog, I am packing my bags to fly to South Africa tomorrow. Yes, to watch some games, but also to disseminate a report on public service delivery which tries to address this great disconnect you highlight. It is not a question of money (Trevor Manual has created more than enough "fiscal space"), it is not a question of democracy writ large, and it is not a question of general government policies and capacity. But there is something going wrong in government listening, responding, learning from, and empowering its citizens in the delivery of public services....will let you know how it goes. And Holland will finally win it all!

Thanks Rogier. As you say,things ought to work better than they do given all the 'capabilities' you mention. People we spoke to put a lot of the blame on low expectations (and all that implies in terms of opting into society). They link this to poor service delivery at the local level which has declined, they say, because local government was left off the reform agenda for too long. Much look forward to hearing how your discussions go on the report -- and I trust the Netherlands make you proud!

Submitted by Anonymous on
Rogier, How convenient :-) A workshop on public service delivery right in the middle of the World Cup!!! I'm angry that I didn't think of this myself. Again, maybe, there is just about enough time think up a working event before the final. Back to the serious matters you raise. I agree better local government is key to improving basic services on the ground. But also a more active civil society that promotes self reliance as much as it promotes civil agitation would help. Frankly, the expectations of many ordinary South Africans - free houses, free education, jobs, unemployment benefits - are simply unachievable if we continue to only look at public sector-led solutions. The private sector, local communities, and individual South Africans must all do their part to build a spirit of self reliance.

Submitted by Daniel Juol Nhomngek on
The world bank will keep on pumping millions and millions of dollars to conflict resolution project but according to what I see the issue of conflict will never end in the world. Reason being that the root causes of the conflicts are never addressed but if addressed by the World Bank it is always tends to lean on the point of views of strong party leaving weak members in the conflict indignant. For instance, the policy of immunity which ruling leaders enjoys saves nothing good for the citizen of a given country. The case Sudan will be like that after the referendum if Bashir will rig the referendum the world will just lean on Bashir and try to persuade the southerners to accept the deal. At the same time world bank will keep on pumping in money that it is supporting peace project. Is it logical? Such attitude will never end the conflict in the world. Justice should be done and give rights to weaker members.

Submitted by Juol Nhomngek Geech on
It is now crystal clear that majority of the Southern Sudanese if not all have fallen in love with separation. This is shown by the way the Southern Sudanese react always to anybody who seems to favour unity. It was seen when the UN Secretary General commented about the importance of unity in Sudan, it was also seen when the chairman of AU commission, Mr. Jean Ping's comment seemed to favour the Unity of Sudan. Such reactions, show that southern Sudanese are ready for their nations after hundreds of years under Arab fundamentalists' malevolent rule in Sudan. Any failure by the world to acknowledge and appreciate the southern Sudanese nationalism and grant them their desire will result into serious ramifications. Millions of people will die and millions more will be displaced as World Bank continues spending millions of dollars to cope with such man made disaster.If it is another business then the world Bank and major powers should the war through mediator's approach. Therefore, I want to give this warning to the World Bank that if it will not play a fair game but instead play a double standard game in the issue of Sudan, the war will result by all means. The only way to avoid such danger is to allow the opinions of Southern Sudanese to determine their own destiny. Otherwise, Southern Sudanese will never be deterred nor blackmailed from achieving the object of their dreams i.e. independence of the South.

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