Vishwas Satgar: the Political Economy of FIFA

Vishwas Satgar has a half-time message from South Africa for World Cup watchers. It’s a quick introduction to “the political economy of soccer” that won’t dent any grown-up’s pleasure in the athletic or human spectacle — no more than, say, the endless buzzing of those vuvuzelas. Short form: most of the money that comes with the games will leave with the games. South Africa will be stuck with four new white-elephant stadia and public deficits and debts much worse than California’s. The engine of Africa’s development will still be a site of rising unemployment, falling life expectancy (at just under 50 years, below Sudan and Ethiopia), and a health-care system in shambles. There’s money in those Budweiser and VISA ads around the World Cup matches that might have been invested in universities, not in FIFA, the football federation.

Vishwas Satgar is a labor lawyer and leftwing activist, an insurgent ex-Secretary of the South African Communist Party who’s way out of alliance with the ANC on the uplift politics of the World Cup. Satgar’s message resonates with the remarkably fair-and-balanced film Fahrenheit 2010 by South Africa-born Craig Tanner. Archbishop Desmond Tutu feels “a world of good — well worth the price” in a South Africa’s month in the sun; “if we’re going to have white elephants,” he says in the film, “so be it.” But the argument that lingers is that “public funds have been looted for a moment in our history. People are still going to be living in shacks.”

Like the Beijing Olympics in Summer ’08, this World Cup is a coming-out party, and a historic marker for Africa at the center of the maximum stage… without anything like the long-term strategic planning China put into its primetime debut, Satgar argues:

This World Cup has been done, technically and in terms of construction, in sort of record time. There was a grand display of engineering capability and technology and so on. And people in South Africa’s squatter settlements, and in what we could call our slums, I am sure are wondering, ‘If they could do all this grandiose stuff, why haven’t they built us houses over fifteen, sixteen years of democracy?’ So I think these contradictions are going to come back to haunt the political forces that have stood by this.

Vishwas Satgar in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, June 15, 2010.

Consciousness-raising is over. You may now watch Spain v. Switzerland, then South Africa v. Uruguay in peace.

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