The Biggest Winner of the World Cup: South Africa

07/13/2010 05:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Howard Steven Friedman Statistician and health economist for the United Nations; Teacher, Columbia University

Sure, Spain took the trophy and bragging rights for the tournament, but South Africa was the real winner. For the last few weeks, I combed the news looking for the story about "Tourists Tortured in South Africa," "Massive Kidnappings of Soccer Fans" or other disaster stories, and there were none. The largest complaints I read about concerned the traffic which, while annoying, cannot be a major source of complaint for fans from Paris, New York, Cairo or any other metropolis that deals with daily traffic jams.

To put South Africa's success hosting World Cup 2010 in context, it's important to remember that this country only brought an end to apartheid in 1994. Until less than 15 years ago, South Africa was also known for being the country with the most reported murders in the world. It is a nation that was decimated not only by ethnic tensions, but also by HIV/AIDS. Nearly 6 million people are estimated to be living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa in 2009, more than in any other country in the world.

Furthermore, South Africa is a middle income country with a high wealth inequality, an unemployment rate of nearly 25% and tremendous brain drain with recruiters from the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia constantly hiring top South African graduates and professionals. Simply put, South Africa entered this event with far more challenges than recent World Cup hosts like Germany, Korea/Japan, France, US and Italy and, at the same time, had far less available wealth to spend on the games.

Maintaining a safe sporting event like the World Cup or Olympics is a daunting challenge -- one the US failed to deliver in the 1996 Olympics (Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park bombing resulted in over 100 injuries and 2 deaths) and which Germany failed to deliver in 1972 (the Munich Olympics hostage situation resulted in 17 deaths). This accomplishment should be recognized, especially in light of the tremendous media build-up of concern regarding South Africa's ability to have a safe event.

When I visited Jo-burg a few months ago, I didn't roam carefree as I might have in Paris or Rome. I was instead vigilant while observing a place in transition, striving to become one of the great cities of the world while still wrestling with major crime and poverty. Building on the success of the World Cup, I hope that South Africa will continue to improve its security, its economy, and the quality of life of its people, while reaping the economic benefits of the tourism it has duly earned.