Friday, April 11, 2008

Will FIFA Flop and the Olympics Become a Circus?

The attempted dousing of the Olympic flame in the streets of London is appropriately analogous for the growing threat that faces this year’s Olympic Games in Beijing.

Perhaps the echoes of icy flutterings atop the roaring pinnacle of Everest has sent the message from the roof of the world mostly eloquently about China’s human rights abuses to the rest of the world. Because how insane is it that in the Olympic Year, China intends to annex Everest for a few weeks (blocking all mountaineering during the best climbing period) in order to open up an express VIP route for the Olympic flame to the summit. Wouldn’t it be better for other team present to witness the flame,and draw strength from it, perhaps even give their support? Why this heavy handed approach from China?

I don’t know about you, but when I think of China, it seems a long shot, a curve ball at best, to juxtapose the flame on top of Everest, and say: “Wow, the Chinese are impressive.” To Tibetans and most of the rest of the world, Tibet is a separate country. For that matter, so is Taiwan. Tell that to the Chinese, if you dare.

Centre of Attention

So it is really bizarre that such a large international event, and all the attention it solicits, is meant to show off a country. It’s a fashion parade for a country. A huge advertisement. What is happening instead, in this instance, is China is under the spotlight, and the world is taking a longer and harder than usual look at China, and observers are finding a few very stinky dead rats swept under the perfectly coiffed carpets.

When I lived in South Korea, I came to understand a peculiar relationship that China has with North Korea. While China served to some extent as a benign Big Brother to North Korea, they were bizarrely also closer to the North Koreans and their dictator (a man who makes Robert Mugabe look like Mickey Mouse) than even the South Koreans. The Chinese stood by and supported the antics of the North Korean regime (Korean rocket firings notwithstanding) and the countries remain close. China’s dark handlings in Africa are of concern too.

China Will Perform Well

It is likely though, with the Olympics just over 3 months away, that negative sentiment will gain momentum, but not enough. There will be boycotts, there will be embarrassment, but the games will be spectacular. More than likely the world will come away with a new found respect for this emerging giant, and fear – in no small measures - will be part of the recipe we take from the Olympics. We will notice the furious growth happening on a massive scale, but we will also notice the environmental pollution and the growing threat posed by their continued voracious domestic consumption.

China is likely to be a leading medal nation, just as it begins to lead the world (and the East) into the New Economy. For the young and powerful dragon has now awoken, as another dragon, old, and fat and ragged, retires to its cave in the West.

FIFA Too Much For South Africa

And then there is the FIFA World Cup. A much larger event in many respects, and it is still 2 years away. In South Africa, if it is not already abundantly obvious, things are going from bad to worse.

The initial concerns when the World Cup was awarded to South Africa were sneered at. They were seen as ‘spiteful’ or ‘spoilsport’, rather than rational, real and realistic concerns. One of the main concerns has been crime.

South Africa’s crime statistics rival Columbia’s as amongst the worst in the world, but when it comes to sheer violence, South Africa steps ahead as the undisputed leader. There is no death penalty for the criminals though; this is derided as anti-human rights, meanwhile every second day the front pages of national newspapers cover the latest violent slaughter.

South Africa’s elite crime fighting unit – the Scorpions – has been ordered to fall away and be integrated, piecemeal, into the ineffectual and corrupt South African Police Service. This is ostensibly because they were doing too good a job, and more pertinently, were exposing corruption at the highest levels.

A Cancer Called Corruption

Corruption is undoubtedly South Africa’s greatest affliction. And it is the greed associated with this ‘something for nothing’ attitude that risks the shipwrecking of not just the FIFA World Cup, but what is presently Africa’s greatest success story. It is becoming more and more plausible that South Africa, in the wrong hands, may go down the drain just as Zimbabwe did. Land re-distribution is already on the cards, although on a scale that appears for now to be ‘fair’ and acceptable.

Another dilemma facing South Africa is the struggle to provide adequate electricity. The current setup involves rolling blackouts, every day, nationwide, and this has been scheduled for at least another 6 months. Labour Union COSATU wants to strike against tariff increases, and also food price increases meanwhile ESKOM (the power utility) reiterates price increases on the cards and then update these statements with even higher premiums.

South Africans have already taken strain with record breaking increases in petroleum prices. As such, Eskom’s tariff hikes and escalating food prices could not have come at a worse time. Just yesterday the interest rate was hiked 50 basis points.

Meanwhile, attempts to use less electricity have failed dismally. Statistics South Africa reports a 2.3% increases in consumption in February 2008 (year on year),and before that is was a 5.3% increase.

Part of the problem is South Africa’s aggressive home building policy. Each new home presents a new user on the countries’ national grid. Thus even a certain amount of efficiency gets swallowed up by the additional demands made via newly electrified homes. A country growing at 4-5% needs its electricity supply to grow at a similar rate. Instead, South Africa is producing almost half this figure, at around 2.7%. Unseasonably wet weather and expensive coal prices wreak havoc with Eskom’s ability to deliver on spec right now.

And with all these huge problems facing South Africa, the country faces a crisis on top of this as well. The skills shortage in South Africa is chronic. It is so severe that experts believe the stadiums, whilst they will be completed on time, will be way over budget, and will require the importation of skilled artisans (for example the Chinese workers employed for the construction of Olympic Stadia). The same applies to South Africa’s Gautrain network (currently under construction). Meanwhie public transport in South Africa remains Third World.

The future of the 2010 World Cup is far from certain, and far less certain than the Olympics. It is not difficult to imagine the next 18 months in South Africa dominated by strikes and struggle, with crime rebounding (there has been talk of increased attacks during power cuts) and municipal services eroding even further. South Africa’s education, health and police services are all a shambles. The roads are crumbling and filled with potholes. Even the countries water supply is now under investigation.

To the extent that China manages (or suppresses) its own PR nightmare, and pulls off a successful event, perhaps South Africa can learn to come to grips with its own domestic challenges. Closer to the 2010 World Cup as SA becomes the centre of attention, it will have to manage its PR too.

We can only hope both South Africa and their Bafana Bafana soccer team are able to demonstrate their potential. If both cannot show they can put their best feet forward, 2010 is bound to flop. My prediction is that we can’t expect to hope things will turn out peachy in South Africa, but they might turn out all right. But given the evidence we already have (that power supply is on course to get worse going into the future, and crime too) South Africa is not going in the direction we need to be.

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