Ordinary Brazilians foot the FIFA bill -- some lessons from South Africa

[For more on Brazil, click HERE. For more on the soccer World Cup, click HERE.]

By Patrick Bond, Durban

June 24, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Over the last fortnight, Brazil’s millions of street protesters in 80 cities supporting the Free Fare Movement have declared how fed up they are with making multiple sacrifices to neoliberalism as revitalised by one Sepp Blatter, the Swiss emperor of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). While right-wing opportunists have been involved in some of the recent protests, the core grievances are apparently those of the left and of the disaffected youth.

Writing from South Africa, my compatriots and I should not merely offer Brazilians our admiration, since a “Grand Pact” is apparently now being crafted by President Dilma Rousseff. Having failed to repress the rebellion with brute police force, she now appears ready to make large-scale concessions. As she put it on June 21, “We need to oxygenate our political system, to find ways to return to our institutions to be more transparent, more resistant to bad practices and more open to the influence of society.”

We should also take the opportunity to prod our own three-year-old memories here. After the giddy month of June-July 2010, our own World Cup hangover still requires maxi-strength aspirins for the crushing pain so many South Africans suffer, underfoot Blatter’s white elephant stadiums and elites-only infrastructure.

The memory may have faded, but there were also thousands of South Africans rioting in the streets in the period just before the World Cup began, in a manner so threatening that the Pretoria regime of Jacob Zuma appeared ready to implement the corporate-Swiss version of fascist rule.

Today, our main cities’ municipal budgets are still bleeding red accountant blood, with millions of dollars annually diverted to subsidise stadium operating costs, for which FIFA Local Operating Committee Danny Jordaan humbly apologised last year. In the FIFA tradition of endless crony-corruption, the big construction cartels illegally colluded to massively overprice those near-empty sports monuments, it was revealed a few months ago.

And although Johannesburg’s $2.5 billion elite fast-train built for the World Cup – conspicuously disconnected from working-class transport – was meant to break even with 110,000 riders a day, it still needs an $80 million annual subsidy because its FIFA-dazed planners overestimated ridership by two-thirds. Durban’s unnecessary new $1 billion King Shaka Airport is a mostly desolate “aerotropolis” fantasyland, as none of the anticipated international hub traffic materialised.

After egging us on to build hedonistic palaces, bullet trains and airports while the vast majority here suffer so much, Blatter’s crimes against South African society and economy continue unpunished. His mafia took more than $3 billion in revenues back to Zurich without paying taxes or heeding exchange controls, and meanwhile the South African foreign debt soared from $70 billion just before the World Cup to $135 billion today.

Brazil is already suffering an identical hangover and the pain is reportedly unbearable. Most observers of the lauded emerging markets – including superficially strong Turkey – were surprised by the recent upsurge of popular fury. When Dilma visited Durban three months ago for the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) leadership summit, her confidence and political momentum were evident.

After all, she and predecessor Lula da Silva – a popular former metalworker – had treated her society and environment far better than the other four, it appeared. Unique among the BRICS, inequality had dropped substantially thanks to the doubling of the minimum wage and a family grant. And in contrast to her much filthier summit partners, Brazil was rated in 2012 by the Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance Index as improving on many fronts – which allowed Dilma to victoriously host last year’s Rio+20 United Nations Earth Summit.

With her Workers Party having largely defanged the CUT union federation as well as a large chunk of the left intelligentsia and NGOs, Brazil likewise provided grounds for South African progressives’ misimpressions, as we desperately search for (at minimum) social-democratic, green and gender-civilized examples to emulate.

Last September, in the wake of the Marikana Massacre, Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) pragmatists argued passionately that we need a “Lula moment” so as to apply similar policies here. I doubt we’ll hear that untenable phrase again.

In Brasilia, hubris soon set in. You could just hear that elite back-slapping, what with hosting this month’s FIFA Confederations Cup soccer, the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, and the victorious campaigns by Brazilians to lead the World Trade Organization and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. Looking outward at great expense, Dilma and her Workers Pary put their society through a slow-motion wringer, which I witnessed during a month’s stay in Rio a year ago, culminating in a march of 80,000 against Rio+20’s pro-corporate “Green Economy” spin.

That demo featured hundreds of huge cardboard cut-outs of a sinister-looking Dilma bearing a chainsaw, clearing the Amazon for the country’s largest corporations, Vale and Petrobras, helped by the gigantic BNDES national development bank. Conflict last month arose again after Vale and BNDES wrecked Indigenous people’s habitat with the Belo Monte mega-dam’s construction. Next door to us in Mozambique, similar anger at Vale’s coal land-grabbing is also now motivating protests by thousands of peasants.

Then came Blatter, with his preposterous demands and, last week, his arrogant red-flag remark to the Brazilian street bulls: “they should not use football to make their demands heard.”

Eish! We know that ruffian far too well: his reign here provided so many justifications for similar revolt. In the run-up to June 2010, there were several dozen protests each day, most over service-delivery shortcomings as government diverted funding from basic needs to pleasing FIFA. Many protests were aimed explicitly at the way the World Cup was being implemented, including 1500 community and labour activists in Durban on June 16, 2010, demanding a “World Cup for all” (not just for profiteers and the country’s wealthier spectators).

In the east of the country, more than a thousand pupils demonstrated against Nelspruit’s Mbombela stadium, when schools displaced by construction were not rebuilt. That little city was littered with FIFA-fingerprinted corpses thanks to corruption-related hit jobs on whistle-blowing politicians and factional rivals.

Other FIFA-related protests were held by informal traders in Durban and Cape Town who were iced out of World Cup commercial opportunities; against Johannesburg officials by Soccer City’s neighbours in impoverished Riverlea township; against construction companies by workers; by disabled people against the stadium’s wheelchair access design; and against national bureaucrats by four towns’ activists attempting to relocate provincial borders so as to shift their municipalities to a wealthier province.

Labour movement strikes were threatened, raging or had just been settled over national electricity price increases, Eskom and transport sector wages and municipal worker grievances. Using their power to keep hundreds of ships out of Durban’s harbour – some of which transported the 2.3 million “Zakumi” mascot leopard dolls sewn in Shanghai by workers earning just $3 a day – the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union won a wage increase double the inflation rate.

During the World Cup games, however, Blatter insisted on a protest-free zone, with regular police bannings of attempted marches – such as an innocuous “education for all” rally in Pretoria, even though FIFA had co-sponsored the group (One Goal) requesting permission to march – until sufficient resistance emerged to overcome the harassment. The two national TV networks self-censored the movie Fahrenheit 2010 about FIFA exploitation.

With this sort of official paranoia at a record high, the South African National Defence Force’s troops and air defence system mobilised against terror attacks. More trivially, two other activists and I were arrested at Durban’s Beach FanFest for simply handing out anti-xenophobia fliers at half-time during the Ghana-Uruguay quarter-final match: the charge was “ambush marketing”. FIFA’s copyright mania even prevented use of the phrase “World Cup 2010” when township artisans produced small crafts.

Nevertheless, a few victories were recorded along the way – not just the right to blow the vuvuzelas to the point of hearing loss. Thousands of stadium construction workers had fought for higher wages and often won. And AIDS educators who were initially prevented from distributing condoms at stadiums objected and reversed FIFA’s puritanical streak.

On the evening of June 13 in Durban, several hundred security workers at the new stadium revolted after the Germany-Australia game, demanding payment of a promised bonus. They had received $20 for 12 hours’ work, as outsourcing and superexploitation soured employee relations in the often dangerous security sector. Police tear-gassed and stun-grenaded 300 to break up the protest.

In four other stadiums, workers downed tools against the security-sector labour brokers, leading to mass firings and compelling more expensive national police to come to FIFA’s aid as internal security.

In addition to labour’s upsurge, some of the most impressive mobilisations were on the hardest front: pop culture. To illustrate the challenge, Somali-born musician K’naan had used his hit, “Wavin’ Flags”, to advance the notion that a young boy on a dusty soccer field could simply drink a Coca Cola and become a world-class player, as a ubiquitous video insisted. K’naan’s remixed tune for FIFA self-censored all his earlier version’s harder, anti-war lyrics.

So from Cape Town’s naughty Playing Fields Collective culture jammers came delightful new lyrics by the name of “Wavering Flag”:

When they are older
Our children might wonder
Why we sold out
In the name of the FIFA flag…

When I get sober
From all the soccer
There will go FIFA, and
guess who’ll be making cash?

They don’t put back?
They never put back?
They don’t put back? nooo

Yet more ripping protest music was released by Nomadic Wax, Dj Magee and Dj Nio; by the Chomsky AllStars (“Beautiful Gain”); and by a network of artists who came together to publicise Khulumani Support Group, the anti-apartheid victims’ network which is suing corporations in the United States courts for taking away profits and interest when they should have been observing sanctions. Durban’s Iain Robinson (Ewok) contributed the excellent “Shame on the Beautiful Game”, which soon joined a whole CD of hip-hop protest tunes produced by Defboyz. They gathered musicians from “all over the world and in a variety of languages to put one message across: that the powers that be must be held accountable for their actions!”

Also in defence of popular culture, perhaps the most successful protest explicitly against FIFA’s influence was by hundreds of Durban informal traders facing displacement from the century-old Early Morning Market. Were it not for sustained resistance over a year-long period, including a pitched battle with police in mid-2009, they would have been displaced by the then city manager Mike Sutcliffe so that African National Congress cronies could build a shopping mall with no space for affordable fruit and vegetables – but the small traders prevailed and remain at Warwick Junction today.

Low-income black fisherfolk who for generations plied Durban’s famous beachfront piers were banned by the highly class-conscious Sutcliffe just before the games began, and still have not yet regained that right.

The same battle to save public space against increasing crony-privatisation is what motivates hundreds of thousands of protesters to defend Istanbul’s Taksim Square against the Erdogan regime’s shopping mall builders.

Likewise in Brazil, according to political scientist Ana Garcia, “The movement for free transport is an old part of the students’ movement. They’ve started the street protests in Sao Paulo against the tariff increase, and this quickly became a spontaneous protest against the privatization of public services, against the huge amount of public money given to private consortia for the World Cup, against extremely bad quality public health, schools and public urban transport.”

Brazil’s Movement of Landless Workers (MST) is one of the world’s greatest social movements, and its national secretariat explained the public’s exasperation: “Protests are a consequence of the grave structural urban crises, caused by speculative financial capital, resulting in rising rents, massive car sales financed by the banks and chaotic traffic without public transport, where people spend two hours to go to work and school.”

What Blatter does not want is to see more protest directed against his warm-up soccer games, the Confederations Cup, whose posters are being torn down in most cities. Even worse for him is when the society connects the dots between its grievances and his greed.

And if Blatter fibs about his time three years ago – “The World Cup in South Africa was a huge, huge financial success for Africa, for South Africa and for FIFA” – Brazilians should remember that this hutzpah is possible because our society failed to link up all those genuine grievances back in 2010.

Having not learned much since then, our most discontented citizens continue to engage in localistic, fragmented “popcorn protests” at among the highest per capita rates in the world – yet without the capacity to unite across communities, partly because the main trade unions remain stymied by their alliance to the ruling party, as is Brazil’s.

If in coming days, Dilma cannot keep the lid on the boiling pot and if protests against anti-poor mega-events set a new global trend, then the ratio of bread to circuses in all our societies will have to increase. For the Brazilian people will have won a different World Cup competition – for serious social progress.

[Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society. With Ashwin Desai and Brij Maharaj he co-edited Zuma’s Own Goal, which reviewed the 2010 World Cup.]