World Cup watchWill the World Cup change South Africa?

Published 13 May 2010

Thabo Mbeki, the disgraced former South African president, grandly claimed that the 2010 World Cup would be the moment when the African continent “turned the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict”; a BBC reporter touring the country on the eve of the tournament notes the new stadiums and roads, but says the more likely aftermath is that South Africa will have spent billions of dollars on a 30-day advert for the country that quickly fades as the sporting world moves on

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki predicted the 2010 World Cup would be the moment when the African continent “turned the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict.” As has been the case with many of the things Mbeki says, this particular statement, too, was pure nonsense — but at least it was not deadly nonsense.

Let us explain. A study by Harvard researchers estimated that the Mbeki government would have prevented the premature deaths of 365,000 people earlier this decade if it had provided antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients and widely administered drugs to help prevent pregnant women from infecting their babies. The Harvard study concluded that the policies of preventing South Africans from having access to antiretroviral drugs grew out of President Mbeki’s denial of the well-established scientific consensus about the viral cause of AIDS and the essential role of antiretroviral drugs in treating it. Mbeki not only joined forces with the HIV “denialists” to prevent the use of antiretroviral drugs: He sent his government health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, to tours around the country to advocate the use of garlic, lemon juice, and beetroot as AIDS remedies (if you want to read more about this sorry story, see Celia Dugger’s detailed — and depressing — New York Times’s account).

Back to the World Cup. With less than one month to go to Africa’s first World Cup, it is evident that such ambitions — turning the tide of poverty and conflict — were never likely to be fulfilled by a sports event, no matter how big and how lucrative.

For this World Cup will make more money than any in the history of the event. BBC Sports’s David Bond writes that a total of $3.3 billion has been raised by FIFA from television and sponsors, dwarfing the amount made in Germany four years ago.

It has also been one of the most expensive World Cups to put on. FIFA has spent $1.1 billion , while South Africa has paid out $5 billion getting the Rainbow Nation ready for its biggest moment since the 1995 Rugby World Cup, building stadiums, roads, and public transport links.


Bond writes that, having spent the last week in South Africa, traveling from Cape Town to Johannesburg and on to England’s training camp at Rustenburg, it is clear South Africa is ready.

Some cosmetic work remains to be done to roads and at