The World Cup: Lessons from South Africa's Transition

This post originally appeared on the World Development Report 2011 blog.

Who would have thought that rugby could change the world? Two decades ago the apartheid regime in South Africa was brought down by a range of pressures. But the clincher for many South Africans was being ostracized from rugby and other global sporting competitions.


As South Africa prepares to open the 2010 World Cup, the country's passion for sport is offering an equally powerful way of celebrating its full membership in the international community.

With the national team about to square off against Mexico in the first of this year's matches, I am thinking as much about the drama of penalty shoot-outs and the like as lessons of peaceful transition.

When I was in Cape Town a couple of months ago I visited the city's brand new football stadium which is squeezed between an up-scale residential neighborhood and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a pretty amazing structure. I also visited one of the gritty townships in the Cape Flats area north of the city. It was hard to believe I was in the same country.

The peace process that produced the country's first one-man one-vote elections in 1994 unleashed a wave of optimism that reverberated around the world. It took with it the systemic divisions of the apartheid era but South Africa's trajectory over the intervening years shows how difficult it is to put divisions and violence of the past behind and start over.

When I was a student I could not imagine apartheid would ever be history or that Nelson Mandela would eventually walk free. But it has come to pass and although there are some dark clouds, the country's accomplishments offer some telling pointers to other societies making the difficult passage from violent conflict to the kind of big tent democracy that holds promise for the future.

South Africa is particularly well known for some innovative organizational forms used during the transition. The hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) offered wrenching testimony to the horrors of the past and society's determination to turn the page. They provided a model that has been exported, not always with the same success, to other troubled corners of the world.

The changes were cemented by the extraordinary vision of Nelson Mandela as the country's first president. The magnanimous style of leadership he made his own was central in pulling the nation together after years of struggle and injustice. His iconic stature on the global stage was matched by the pre-eminent economic and political role the country rapidly assumed on the African continent, boosting South Africans' sense of national destiny and self-worth. His leadership helped create resilience to the stresses that often drive countries back into conflict.

For many commentators, however, the sheen is off what was once seen as the South African miracle. The crime rate is high and the middle and upper classes rely on sophisticated security systems for their safety. Individual rights are enshrined in the constitution but relations between races are strained. The rich of all colors live well but the travails of the underclass is brought home by the huge slums that surround the country's main cities. I was also struck by a sight I had not expected--white panhandlers on the streets of Cape Town.

At the macro-level, corruption, unemployment, criminality, and economic inequality are all extremely high. This is ominous because they are indicators that generally correlate closely with state-threatening violence.

Looking back, some people involved in the peace negotiations recognize they made mistakes. They put too little emphasis on the task of getting young people into jobs. The very necessary debate on racism, inequality and social marginalization never really happened. Not enough attention was paid to reforming local government which is responsible for providing many basic services. And although civil society is active in many parts of the country, it could have done more to deepen democratization and accountability under the new constitution.

There were plenty of missed opportunities. Had they been seized, the speed and direction of change in South Africa might have been very different.

Amidst the cheers at the World Cup kick-off on Friday we should not forget the sheer power of sport in South Africa's history. Perhaps it will provide an opportunity to revisit some unfinished business. If there is one thing we've learned from South Africa's history, it's that a beautiful game can change the world.

NICHOLAS VAN PRAAG manages the communications and advocacy program for the next World Development Report (WDR2011).