By Daniel Tseghay
For the first time, the World Cup is being held in an African nation and, naturally, the excitement is palpable. The scenes of jubilation in South Africa, the sounds of the thunderous vuvuzela, and the renewed and genuine interest the world has taken in the sport and the host country’s people is something to make the most hardened among us glow a little.
The recent achievements of South Africa are remarkable and celebrated. After ending the shameful practice of apartheid in 1994, it miraculously avoided what was considered inevitable a decade and a half ago—acts of retribution and civil war along racial lines. South Africa has also done some good with its resources and relative political stability, setting up an extensive welfare system to provide for about 15 million people, and largely eradicating severe malnutrition among children under the age of five.
But all is not well in South Africa. It now holds the dubious honour of most economically unequal country in the world. The income gap between the wealthy and the poor is nowhere as large as in the country that Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, our generation’s paragons of justice and equality, call home. Though average income has gone up somewhat, it is being concentrated in the hands of the very few, the white Afrikaners and a small number of blacks making up the middle class. Paradoxically, and tragically, the incomes of the poorest South Africans have actually dropped since apartheid.
In a book published last year, Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People, author Jon Jeter discusses the role of economic privatization in South Africa—how giving businesses, whose only obligation is the bottom line, control over water services made water so expensive the countless people living in the country’s townships resorted to getting it from nearby streams, inevitably leading to a deadly epidemic of cholera. Similar stories of economic exploitation abound in a country that has seemingly replaced legal and political apartheid for economic apartheid.
Such extreme economic disparity, the marginalization of the vast majority of this growing country, and the anxiety and discontent—manifested in the recent wave of protests over access to basic utilities, like clean water, and access to health care—cannot be sustained.
The era of apartheid has not long passed, and wounds take time to heal, disparities years to narrow. This, we know instinctively. But the World Cup may be an opportunity to spread awareness and hasten the pace of justice. I only hope that the attention directed toward South Africa will not be like its wealth—concentrated in the few wealthy districts, where comfort and privilege predominate, and the overwhelming number of hours is not spent nursing the sense that the struggle for real freedom is not yet over.
Daniel Tseghay is a Toronto-based journalist.