Guests celebrate in Auckland after Durban was named the host of the 2022 Commonwealth Games. The event is projected to cost R1.2 billion in a city where 30 percent of residents live in poverty, the writer says. File picture: Marty Melville

The role of host for the 2022 Commonwealth Games gets SA nowhere – it does nothing for growth, development or reducing poverty, writes Malaika wa Azania.

Johannesburg - I was in primary school in May 2004 when it was announced that South Africa had won the bid to host the 2010 Fifa World Cup tournament. I remember vividly how excited everyone in my township, Meadowlands, was about the prospect of South Africa being the first African country to host the tournament.

But the main reason for the excitement was what people believed would be the economic benefits of hosting it. It was said it would generate millions of rand as foreigners would be spending their money here. South Africa, it was said, would be a better country after the tournament.

Four years later, the world was hit by a recession caused by the credit bubble of 2001-2007 and the resulting global credit crunch. It was a terrible time for global economies as financial institutions collapsed and millions of jobs were lost. In the US alone, the labour market lost 8.4 million jobs, or 6.1 percent of all payroll employment. According to a report published by the Community Law Centre, the South African economy lost about one million jobs.

Another important statistic to note is that in 2006, 34.1 percent of South Africans were living on less than $2 a day (R13.52 at 2006 rates). By 2009, the number had increased to a shocking 42.9 percent, affirming the country’s status as “the most unequal country in the world”, as posited by the UN.

As expected, by the time we hosted the tournament two years after the recession started, things were not well for South Africa.

Not only had the estimated costs of the infrastructure risen but it was becoming clear that the returns would be far less than initially expected.

In the 2010 Fifa World Cup Country Report, released just over two years after the event, the government said it had spent more than $3 billion on the tournament, $1.1bn of which went to building and upgrading stadiums alone.

Other monuments to the event, such as renovated airports, better roads and the continent’s first high-speed rail service, the Gautrain, contributed to the exorbitant costs.

However, most people in the country can’t access the world-class infrastructure. Most of the stadiums are white elephants whose upkeep costs the taxpayer millions of rand every year.

The benefits of the infrastructure, like those of the economy, are unequal. Only the comparatively small middle class and the wealthy can afford to use them. The poor working-class people can’t afford these things. They can’t afford trips on the Gautrain or even tickets to events held at these stadiums, many of them concerts with high-profile international artists.

Spending far exceeded the economic benefits, as Fifa gave South Africa only a fraction of the ticket sales in exchange for hosting the event. It was not only the government that suffered financial losses. Hardest hit were ordinary South Africans. Thousands of people who had spent their savings in renovating their homes and purchasing properties in anticipation of large volumes of tourists were terribly disappointed when fewer tourists than expected came. Businesses suffered great losses due to Fifa laws that disenfranchised them.

Street vendors were hit hardest, as only accredited vendors were allowed to trade.

But the suffering brought by the sports event didn’t end at the financial losses. The poorest of the poor suffered severely.

In the quest to build expensive stadiums and to impress the world, our people were relocated to places without proper amenities and infrastructure. One example is Blikkiesdorp or “Tin Can Town” in Cape Town, a settlement of regimented rows of corrugated iron shacks encircled by a tall, concrete fence.

The people living in Tin Can Town were moved here to create a false image of South African cities for soccer fans from around the globe. Many of the people living there claim that the conditions are harsher than in the townships created by the government before the end of apartheid.

Five years after hosting the tournament and right in the middle of another economic downturn, we are again celebrating having won the bid to host yet another major sporting tournament. Durban has won the right to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Before we even discuss the socio-economic implications of this decision, let us briefly unpack what these games are about. The Commonwealth Games are an international sports competition among nation states that are former territories and colonies of the British Empire.

Most of these states are developing countries in Africa and Oceania; it was through their colonisation that the British Empire was built. It was through their colonisation that British wealth was created, so nothing about the wealth is common or equal.

Over the years, a number of countries have withdrawn from the Commonwealth, the latest being the Gambia, which withdrew in 2013, 10 years after Zimbabwe had done so. What we are celebrating, in essence, is a neo-colonial institution that survives on imperialistic pillars. This is happening in the middle of an important moment in our country, where young people are waging a struggle for transformation and the decolonisation of learning institutions. But I digress.

Durban is in KwaZulu-Natal, whose poor population has one of the biggest poverty gaps – R18bn would be needed to lift all poor households out of poverty.

According to Economic Development and Growth in Ethekwini (Edge), a publication of the Ethekwini municipality that gives economic indicators, more than 30 percent of Durban’s residents are living in poverty. Considering that Durban is in the second-most densely populated province, this percentage is staggering.

The estimated cost of hosting the Commonwealth Games is R1.2bn, most of which, according to Ruben Reddy from the KwaZulu-Natal Institute for Architecture, will go to infrastructure development.

The 2014 Games cost host city Glasgow, in Scotland, more than £1bn and the 2018 Games taking place in Queensland are to cost $2bn. The government of Auckland refused to put in a bid because it was estimated it would lose more than $600 million.

Auckland is a city in a developed country, yet it is worried about the economic implications of hosting the event. But here comes Durban, a city in a developing country with high levels of poverty and unemployment, eagerly preparing to host it. This is déjà vu, for developed and wealthy nations had the same reservations about the 2010 Fifa World Cup that our poverty-stricken country clearly didn’t have.

Some may argue, as Nelson Mandela did during the bid for the 2010 tournament, that sporting events contribute to nation-building.

This kind of thinking is not only extremely problematic, it is highly ahistorical and apolitical. It wants to reduce nation-building to a feel-good event rather than a deliberate systematic transformation of the economy.

It disregards the reality that after an hour of “unity” at a stadium, the socio-spatial dialectic remains the same. Everyone returns to their lives: poor working class blacks to their townships, the middle class to their rented complexes, and wealthy whites to the surburbs and their ill-gotten farms. What kind of nation-building is this?

The truth of the matter is that South Africa is a country far from liberation under a government that has misguided priorities.

While nations that take development seriously are investing in education and projects aimed at sustainable development, we are establishing a role as events organisers and hosts.

This is in spite of the many disturbing realities that gnaw at us, and the ever-present triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and structural inequalities.

Job creation is often punted as the biggest benefit of these events. But the reality of the situation is that the jobs created from these events are short term and those who benefit from providing services such as transport and logistics are too few in number. Sadly, many of them are also the politically connected, as seen during the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Ordinary people, the working class majority, are the biggest losers.

We South Africans are easily excited by being seen as global players while poverty resides in our backyards.

Our obsession with being exceptional, with being a First World country in a Third World continent, is going to be our downfall.

Until we conceive of a vision geared to a sustainable development agenda, we will not see this country emerge from the state that it’s in. We must choose whether we want to build a country for our people or to impress the world.

We can’t have both.

* Malaika Wa Azania is the author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent