Come June, soccer's World Cup will be hosted by South Africa. Though only four of the 64 games are to be played here in Nelspruit, a $137 million stadium was built for the occasion.
NELSPRUIT, South Africa — Come June, soccer’s World Cup will be hosted by South Africa. Though only four of the 64 games are to be played here in Nelspruit, a $137 million stadium was built for the occasion.
The arena’s 18 supporting pylons reach skyward in the shape of orange giraffes. At nightfall, their eyeballs blink with flashes of bewitching light.
The people who live nearby, proud as they are to host soccer’s greatest event, also wonder: How could there be money for a 46,000-seat stadium while many of them still fetch water from dirty puddles and live without electricity or toilets?
The 2010 World Cup is meant to display South Africa at its very best: a modern, prosperous nation friendly to commerce, tourists and democratic ideals. This is the first time the event will be in Africa, and it was buoyantly suggested by the former President Thabo Mbeki that the competition was a milestone for the entire continent, “sending ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo.”
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Such boasts may well turn out to be true, for South Africa has spent more than $6 billion on stadiums, roads, airports and other projects.
But Nelspruit, in preparing for its own six hours of championship soccer, is instead an example of the nation at its worst, with distressing inequality — measured by some economists as the worst in the world — and an epidemic of local corruption that often leads the downtrodden to rise up in anger.
Simon Magagula lives in a mud house accessible by a dirt road whose cavities deepen with each rainfall. His doorway is a short jaunt to the new stadium.
“Those who’ll benefit from this are the wealthy that already have plenty in their hand,” he said, not in resentment so much as weariness.
And indeed, with the stadium project came an infusion of money, catnip to the corrupt who congregate at the junction of money and power.
“No point in trying to hide it, there was a total collapse of good governance, primarily around the World Cup,” said Lassy Chiwayo, Nelspruit’s mayor, who was installed as an emergency caretaker in late 2008 after his predecessor was removed.
Independent investigators into the matter found that millions of dollars had been misspent on contracts. Their final report calls for criminal charges against the former municipal manager and the directors of three companies managing the stadium project.
The Nelspruit area, with a population of 600,000, has been home to a long-running feud between rival members of South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress. The antagonists want a bigger share of patronage and other spoils. Killings seem to have been used as a tactic.
In the past month, three supposed hitlists landed in South African newspapers. One includes people to be shot, another those to be poisoned. The Sunday Times recently quoted a repentant Mozambican assassin who asserted that he was hired by top-level politicians and businessmen to kill their adversaries, describing his profession as the work of a “cleaner.”
In January 2009, the speaker of the municipal assembly, Jimmy Mohlala, was gunned down in front of his house. He had gathered evidence about stadium deals and declared that he was ready to name names and shame the shameless.
This past January, another man on the lists, Sammy Mpatlanyane, the deputy director of the provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Recreation, was shot as he lay in bed. He was “a very influential decision maker,” the mayor said.
When it comes to the World Cup, Nelspruit, well known as a gateway to Kruger National Park, seems to put its worst foot forward repeatedly.
The acquisition of the stadium site itself seemed nefarious. The municipality convinced the trustees of a huge tract of ancestral land to sell 173 acres for 1 rand, or 13 cents. The people intended to benefit from the trust objected, and a judge canceled the deal, likening it to when colonial powers robbed the naive in return for “buttons and shiny mirrors.” The eventual price was about $1 million.
“There has been nothing but duplicity, double dealings and double agendas,” said Richard Spoor, the lawyer who handled the case. “And what will we have after the World Cup is played? There’s no team to occupy the stadium. It will be a white elephant. Politicians will use it to make speeches.”
Two schools — John Mdluli Primary School and Cyril Clark High School — sat on the purchased land. They were bulldozed in 2007, and the students were transferred to hot and airless prefabricated classrooms.
Parents and their children repeatedly staged protests. They blocked streets, burned tires and once even torched a police car. The police dispersed them with rubber bullets. This year, construction began to replace the demolished schools.
“The school problem made us furious, that and the need for jobs,” said Magagula, who lives near the new arena.
And yet he loves soccer, the favorite sport of black South Africans. He cannot wait for the World Cup to begin. He could afford only one ticket for one game, an $18 seat specially priced for the country’s residents.
Nelspruit is one of five cities to get new stadiums, including some arenas that are quite spectacular. It will host Honduras versus Chile; Italy versus New Zealand; Australia versus Serbia; North Korea versus Ivory Coast.”I chose the Italians,” Magagula said proudly. “I don’t really care who wins. But whatever happens, I’ll never forget it.”