Debate continues over World Cup stadiums

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Debate continues over World Cup stadiums

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s World Cup stadiums could change the image of Africa forever, or stand as spectacular monuments to extravagance and waste in a country still struggling to spread the fruits of majority rule.

South Africa has confounded skeptics who said the stadiums would never be finished in time for next June’s soccer spectacular and is close to completing 10 top-class venues that bear comparison with the world’s best. But while that controversy has passed, the debate has not diminished over whether Africa’s first World Cup should have been more modest, freeing up millions of dollars to help an army of poor who live in squalor 15 years after the end of apartheid.

When Pretoria won the right to stage the 2010 tournament back in 2004, it set the budget for stadiums at around 3 billion rand ($390 million). After the addition of two extra arenas and some dazzling architectural overlays, that figure has now escalated to at least 13 billion rand. Critics say the money was wasted and should have been spent on alleviating poverty - which feeds South Africa’s frightening rate of violent crime - building millions of new houses to replace apartheid-era shanty towns and combating the world’s biggest HIV caseload. They charge that many of the stadiums will quickly become unused relics after the tournament.

“Will it ever be possible for a [ruling] ANC party politician who claims to have the mandate of poor blacks in this country to go and stand in some of these poor areas and justify why the government saw fit to spend a billion rand or more on a stadium? It cannot be done,” Frans Cronje, deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations told Reuters.

But there is another side to the argument that says the World Cup gives Africa the chance finally to reverse stereotypes of famine, pestilence and war that still blight the continent. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said the World Cup will have as big an impact for black people as the election of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Economists also say World Cup construction has cushioned South Africa from the global recession and will bring close to 56 billion rand into the economy. “It has been a huge blessing for South Africa in view of the recession,” said Gillian Saunders of business consultants Grant Thornton.

The World Cup cannot be detached from its context, a country still scarred by apartheid where football is the passion of the black majority, who often in the past had to go cap in hand to white-run rugby stadiums to stage matches.

The newly built stadiums certainly go beyond what is strictly necessary to stage a football match, even one watched by the world’s biggest television audience.

From the soaring arch and sky train over Durban’s ocean side venue to Cape Town’s majestic arena between Table Mountain and the Atlantic, to the white petals shrouding Port Elizabeth’s bowl and the huge, calabash-shaped Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, the new stadiums are magnificent. Even the smaller arenas of Nelspruit and Polokwane have their own unique architectural flourishes, although with no top rugby or soccer teams here or in Port Elizabeth it is harder to rebut charges that these stadiums will become white elephants after a few World Cup matches.

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