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Raj Patel

Raj Patel

Posted: June 10, 2010 03:09 PM

Off-Side at the World Cup

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When the World Cup begins in South Africa on Friday, anyone who has ever kicked a ball will be able to follow along -- soccer is elegant, straightforward and simple to understand. The Beautiful Game does, however, have a regulation that stops play, reverses the game and routinely baffles neophytes: the off-side rule. To understand it, spectators need only look outside the billion dollar stadiums to the streets of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, for they are filled with off-side people, those whom the Rainbow Nation has yet to embrace.

The complexities of the off-side rule are almost indescribable on paper -- it's best explained with pepper-pots or, these days, YouTube. But the regulation is essentially this: It's okay to loiter wherever you want on the football field, but if you find yourself behind your opponent's lines in the wrong place when a ball is kicked your way, you can watch it fall, but cannot play it. Behind the lines of rivals, seeing events unfold, but unable to join in the game: That happens all the time in South Africa.

In particular, such is the plight of more than ten million South Africans without proper housing, many living in legal limbo throughout South Africa's cities, under bridges, near trash dumps, on slopes and beyond the brows of hills. They'll be enjoying the World Cup, welcoming their foreign visitors, and the glare of the international media might provide some cover for them to tell their story of 20 years off-side in South Africa.

Under apartheid, blacks were often violently removed from city centers, expelled to rural areas or forcibly relocated to the townships. When apartheid crumbled, so did the restrictions on movement that had hemmed in a large rural population. On taking power in 1994, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) government demobilized the popular movements that brought them to power and swapped apartheid economic dogma for neoliberal doctrine.

The government deregulated the economy, shrank the state, and opened local markets to the winds of international competition. The result: Jobs left the cities at precisely the time that new people arrived to take them, and social safety nets were cut to tatters. South Africa's human development ranking fell from 95th in 1995 to 129th out of 158 countries in 2009

Through the 1990s and 2000s, temporary shacks became permanent homes for 1.8 million households. In cities, settlements blossomed in and around the middle class communities where a few residents found work as security guards, domestic workers, and day laborers. Work remains scarce, and formal unemployment rates in settlements routinely top 70%. When elections loom, shack communities are generally tolerated by local government officials because they offer a way to tuck wads of poor black ANC voters into wealthier and more conservative neighborhoods. Patronage pulses through the shacks during South Africa's electoral seasons, but dries up during incumbent years.

The ANC insists that the worst of apartheid is over, that the ruling party has led a massive construction program to house the homeless, and that development is coming. Under apartheid, though, township houses stretched over approximately 580 square feet. Today's shack dwellers are lucky to be relocated to homes with an interior space of 390 square feet, many miles from their work, schools and communities. Even then, tenure is insecure. As the World Cup opens, several Cape Town families face eviction because developers increased rents from $38 to $193 per month. Those who haven't been given housing yet are encouraged to be patient.

Rather than wait another decade, shack dwellers have organized, protested and petitioned. The Abahlali baseMjondolo movement, a group of over 30,000 shack dwellers from across the country (and whose website I manage), recently took the government to South Africa's highest court, and won. The Constitutional Court struck down a 'Slums Act' that would have effectively criminalized being so poor as to need a shack.

As Amnesty International has noted, though, the weight of these legal victories have been undercut by local violence against Abahlali's leaders. Over the past year, shack settlement leaders in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town have been chased from their homes by gangs, arrested, detained without hearing and assaulted. The police have done little to help, and much to hinder, investigations into these human rights abuses.

As the World Cup begins, Abahlali are mounting an 'Upside Down World Cup' campaign to draw attention to apartheid's unfinished business. In Cape Town, they will set up tin shacks outside the Green Point Stadium, positioning themselves off-side, to show how they live. Their greatest threat to the South African government is their visibility, and the activists fear violent arrest.

Yet their only demand is the chance to make the rules on the same terms as everyone else. In setting up their shacks in full view, shack dweller activists hope to turn the streams of passing fans not into spectators, but into team players who might, from their home countries, be able to hold the South African government to their rhetoric long after the Cup's final whistle blows.


Raj Patel is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for African Studies at UC Berkeley, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, and administers the website of the Abahlali baseMjondolo shackdwellers organization at www.abahlali.org. He is also the author of the international bestseller, The Value of Nothing: How To Reshape Market Society and Reclaim Democracy (Picador).