In the run-up to the World Cup preliminary draw in Durban on Sunday, fresh questions are being raised over South Africa’s preparedness to host the world’s second-largest sporting event in 932 days.

Once again the spotlight is on the 10 (five new, five upgraded) World Cup stadiums after strikes by thousands of workers at the Durban and Cape Town venues laid bare the vulnerability of the country’s preparations to a wave of social unrest.

Rising inequality 13 years into democratic rule has been at the root of a slew of strikes this year. South Africa’s Gini coefficient — a globally accepted measure of income inequality, rose from 0,6 in 1996 to 0,65 in 2005, one of the world’s worst scores.

A month-long strike of public-sector workers in June was followed by stoppages in the metal, petrol and car-parts industry.

Now unions are turning their attention to the World Cup and the hundreds of millions of dollars being ploughed into the construction of new stadiums, hotels, roads, airports and railways.

Claiming exploitation by “fat cat” contractors, 1 200 unionised workers at Durban’s Moses Mabhida stadium downed tools for two weeks.

The strike ended on Monday with employers agreeing to R1 000-a-month per worker in bonuses over the next six months.

The deal also extended the sectoral minimum wage to all workers at the site after it emerged some workers were being paid R6 an hour instead of the minimum R11,98.

In September a week-long strike at Cape Town’s Green Point stadium was settled after employers agreed to lay on transport to the site for workers and to compensate them for past travel costs.

“The unions are taking advantage of a good chance to blackmail everyone into submission,” said Mike Moody, 2010 project manager at Soccer City stadium in Soweto, the venue for the opening and closing World Cup games.

Around 30% of Soccer City’s R1 600 workers are on the minimum wage, said Moody, defending low wages as necessary to hire more workers and bring down unemployment.

Official unemployment stands at 27,5%, a figure that rises to close to 40% when those no longer looking for work are included.

The workers demands also follow a decision to pay bonuses of several million dollars to high-ranking South African football officials, including the chairperson of the World Cup local organising committee (LOC) Irvin Khoza.

“None of the stadiums will be finished on time if these stoppages continue,” one building expert, Colin de Kock, of Gauteng Master Builders’ Association warned last week.

LOC spokesperson Tumi Makgabo said the organisers were “concerned with anything that could impact our deliverables” for the World Cup.

Other issues weighing on the World Cup include public transport, security and ongoing electricity shortages.

An ongoing turf war between two rival minibus taxi associations in Johannesburg, that has claimed several lives this year, led one newspaper to remark that “tourists can expect the ride of their lives”.

Cities are ploughing money into expanding their public bus routes.

Roads, railways and airports are also getting a shot in the arm to facilitate the circulation of an expected 400 000 World Cup visitors.

South Africa’s ability to protect those visitors will put to the test in Durban this week with the arrival of around 3 000 delegates and journalists for the preliminary World Cup draw.

Durban’s beaches have become hotspots for muggings and rapes. A major crime incident that could get coverage in the 174 countries where the draw will be broadcast could dampen the desire of some fans to follow their team to South Africa.

Police and police reservists have been drafted in from around KwaZulu-Natal to secure Durban’s streets for the draw.

National electricity supplier Eskom has also promised not to spoil the party by pulling the plug on Durban this week.

Load shedding, or the cutting of power to some areas during peak demand, has become an almost weekly reality in major cities.

Eskom has assured that at least the 2010 stadiums will be kept alight by generators.

PUBLICATION: Mail & Guardian
DATED: 21st November 2007