How the World Cup Wrecked South Africa

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Striking South African public-service workers march through the streets of Cape Town on Aug. 26. Mike Hutchings / Reuters-Landov

The sound of vuvuzelas became so ubiquitous in South Africa during the World Cup that, lying in bed at night in my Cape Town apartment, I started to hallucinate that my humming indoor heater was a crowd of them honking somewhere far off. But after the final game was played on July 11, the noise disappeared completely. It was eerie, like the volume had been flipped off on South Africa’s soundtrack, like the whole World Cup and the street-festival spirit it engendered had been nothing but a passing dream. Then, last week, after a month of silence, I heard one again, honking outside my window. And another, and another. It was almost a relief. The World Cup was back! But they weren’t honking to support Bafana Bafana or Spain, not this time. They were calling South Africans who poured out from their apartments onto the streets for a darker party: to picket government buildings and storm state hospitals in support of the labor strike that’s now threatening to unwind the mojo South Africa built up during the soccer tournament six weeks ago.

The context for foreign labor strikes can be a little perplexing, so let me explain. There is a “strike season” in South Africa, as predictable and traditional as monsoon season in India or Fleet Week in New York, and it is now upon us. In August and September every year, different workers affiliated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU—a union so powerful it’s actually considered the third, unelected part of South Africa’s “tripartite” ruling alliance, along with the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist Party—renegotiate their contracts. There’s always some battling, some walkout threats. But this August’s strike was different in two ways: the angry tone of the strike’s leaders and the murderous mood of many of the strikers themselves.

COSATU has been President Jacob Zuma’s firmest ally ever since it played Cassius in the usurpation drama that saw Zuma wrest control of the ANC from his predecessor two years ago. But in mobilizing more than a million of his public-sector-employed members to demand an 8.6 percent pay raise—double South Africa’s rate of inflation, and a rate that the government (which already spends one third of its national budget on wages) insists it just can’t afford—COSATU’s chief has sounded remarkably bitter notes against Zuma and his ANC friends. He complained that, with the current ANC, “we have nothing to celebrate. We lost more than 1.1 million jobs.” For the ANC—which moved economically rightward before Zuma—the lavish World Cup may have been a point of pride, but for organized labor it was a capitalist orgy that prioritized spending on fancy stadiums that looked good on foreign TV over raises for the country’s own people. And even then, it unified a wide range of South Africans who, now that the tournament has ended, don’t want to give up the nationalist bonhomie for the income inequality that stratified them before. Local political observers are even suggesting the tripartite alliance that’s led South Africa since liberation in 1994 might be about to break apart.

Then there’s the fractiousness of the strikers. Economically, this year’s strike hasn’t really made itself felt yet: the central dispute is between the government and its own civil servants, mostly teachers and hospital employees, and while the civil servants’ walkout is starting to spawn private-sector sympathy strikes as it heads toward its third week (thanks to a new metalworkers’ strike, Volkswagen just shut its plant in the southeast), most of South Africa’s assembly lines are still rolling. It’s emotionally that the strike has struck deepest.

People here are frightened to see that a new behavior on the picket lines—a mood of reckless defiance—is taking root, post–World Cup, among the working poor. At some hospitals, striking hospital employees have reportedly invaded operating rooms to torment their nonstriking colleagues. Students have been evacuated from schools threatened by striking teachers, and the exams that count toward a high-school diploma have been postponed across nearly half the country. Nonstriking nurses have been assigned security guards, and the health minister himself, a doctor named Aaron Motsoaledi, has taken to the airwaves to beg the strikers to calm down, pleading with them not to turn themselves into monsters. “If you go into a theater where somebody is being operated on and you disrupt, you are actually committing murder,” he said. “You are saying because you want certain rights or because you are angry, somebody must die.” Motsoaledi seemed troubled by the idea that a particularly abnormal or antisocial kind of unrest was gripping South Africa. “It doesn’t happen anywhere [else] in the world,” he lamented in his public announcement.

It’s ironic, because inculcating a renewed sense of racial togetherness, patriotism, and respect for other people’s humanity—Africa’s famous ubuntu spirit—was supposedly the World Cup’s big legacy here. Commentators who took stock of the tournament’s impact on South African society right after the teams went home marveled at what you might call the spiritual benefits: “Black teachers from the townships” lovingly shared beers with “rowdy white fans”; reporters described scenes in which South Africans—normally cynical about the tangible benefits wrought by the Rainbow Nation experiment—put their hands over their hearts while the national anthem played on TV. As a vuvuzela chorale swelled from the barstools around him, one township doctor admitted to a Canadian writer he was experiencing a surge of “hope.” These are hardly a different cohort than the people invading operating rooms. I notice, in reviewing these happy Cup wrap-ups, that many of the optimists quoted happen to be teachers and hospital employees.

In fact, the tenor of the strike itself takes the World Cup as an explicit inspiration. Go walk with the strikers, and you’ll start to feel that the strike is less an about-face from July’s atmosphere than a continuation of it. Last week I followed the vuvuzela siren song down from my apartment to join a group gathering in front of Parliament. It looked like a soccer-fan park. The strikers who weren’t wearing their work uniforms were decked out in green-and-yellow Bafana Bafana team shirts or the parrot-green jackets given out to FIFA volunteers.

It’s not hard to see how the World Cup created a backlash among the very same people whose spirits it lifted while it was happening. South Africa, it is often noted, has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world—the standard measure of inequality in a society. That high figure captures racial inequality left over from apartheid, but it also captures this: a gulf is opening between those black South Africans who have tangibly benefited from black liberation—a well-connected elite sometimes called the “black diamonds”—and the rest of black South Africa. The spheres of politics, government contracts, business, the stock market—they’re open to blacks now, but they’re open to only a few of them. The World Cup, on the other hand, was remarkable for the unusually broad spectrum of South Africans it invited to share in the party. All kinds of people bought tickets at special storefront ticket offices. All kinds of people served as FIFA volunteers. Everybody had a favorite team they were following, from the fat-cat CEO to his shack-dwelling gardener.

By many indicators of economic development, South Africa is doing well. But limited mobility among blue-collar workers—the kind of people COSATU represents—means they rarely get to feel a part of this success story. “We supported the World Cup,” COSATU noted as part of its explanation of why it encouraged its members to strike. The World Cup made poorer South Africans personally part of a South African success story. They won’t fast give up the sense of entitlement and expectations that engendered.

As I watch the strike in South Africa, I think of Brazil, set to host the next World Cup in 2014. Brazil and South Africa are often compared to each other, and Brazilians have been looking to South Africa’s preparations for hints of how to handle the tournament. Both countries are big, for one thing, with their major cities strung far apart. After considering the example of South Africa, Ricardo Teixeira, the FIFA local organizing committee’s chairman in Brazil, characterized the challenges facing Brazil thanks to the forthcoming World Cup this way: “Airports, airports, airports.” But the two countries resemble each other in their staggering social inequality, too. Brazil: take note not only of the preparations, but of the aftermath.

Fairbanks is a writer living in South Africa as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.

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