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World Cup in Cape Town: Face of the ‘New’ South Africa?

by Melissa García Lamarca

When South Africa won the World Cup bid in 2004, the game between FIFA, the Local Organising Committee (LOC) and many local to national government players in Cape Town began around where the venues would be hosted. This unfolded in the city through a stand off between two areas vying to have Cape Town’s main stadium, seating 68,000, for the World Cup semi-finals: the black township of Athlone vs. the middle/upper-middle class, largely white area known as Green Point.

Athlone stadium, Cape Town
In the interest of breaking down the segregation and disparities that continue to exist despite South Africa’s now 16-year-old post-apartheid history, for the first few years the frontrunner for the main stadium was Athlone. Located in the Cape Flats – an area where coloured communities and informal settlements (black townships) sprawl eastward from Table Mountain, often mentioned only in relation to its high levels of crime, poverty and astronomical rates of HIV/AIDS – many were proud that a township was to be the face of the ‘new’ South Africa. The world would see how the country was changing when an area and people that were classified, segregated and particularly marginalised under the Group Areas Act in the 1950s – the legacy of which remains strongly ingrained in the urban fabric – would hold the city’s most important stadium for the pride-inspiring World Cup. 

Yet unbeknown to Athlone’s residents, the political tides turned around 2006, and the main stadium site was instead chosen to be Green Point; Athlone would only hold the smaller stadium to be used for World Cup practice matches. The latter site was determined by the LOC and government decision-makers to be ‘too dangerous’ and ‘poor’. Green Point’s location in a largely middle / upper-middle class white neighbourhood and its proximity to the V&A Waterfront – a working harbour and heavily developed consumer-oriented site filled with shops and restaurants, attracting 22 million visitors per year – in the end scored the decisive points for the decision on what South African face would be shown to the world.

Green Point stadium, Cape Town
City planners started creating an urban park Master Plan in 2006 for Green Point, zoning 28% of the ‘public’ space into a golf course and the rest as a municipal park including playing fields, to be completed by 2012. The stadium itself was built on top of a previously existing public one, that used to attract a great diversity of Capetonians for soccer games; this amenity has since disappeared, and one can only enter Green Point stadium by paying about 70 Rand (about $10) on a guided tour. Athlone has fared even worse: aside from not hosting the main stadium, the smaller stadium was built on a space where children used to play – they now play in the cement spaces in between – and it is closed with guards posted around it, as there is no money for the stadium’s maintenance. In the end only two World Cup practice matches were held on this site, and no further developments are planned around the area.

Unfortunately this type of story around who benefits when such mega-events as the World Cup come to countries/cities across the world is not new. South Africa, and Cape Town in this specific case explored here, has a particularly challenging historical legacy of oppression and inequities related to decades of apartheid to overcome. Hopefully time will change the ingrained patterns towards more socially just and sustainable decision-making and action, moving towards breaking down the historical (and continued) spatial segregation in cities across South Africa.

Special thanks and credit is due to the IHP Cities Fall 2010 students, specifically the World Cup Aftermath case study group, for their great presentation on this subject, on which much of this article was based. 

Credits: Image of Athelone Stadium from capetown.gov.za. Image of Green Point Stadium from thefutblog.com.