IN 1989, the non-racial South African Soccer Federation hosted its national tournament in Pietermaritzburg. One of the administrators present, from the Eastern Cape Football Board, was Danny Jordaan. From photographs in the tournament brochure he looks out with a steely gaze. His somewhat grim features are now instantly recognisable, but could he have imagined that twenty years later he would be the kingpin in South Africa’s staging of FIFA’s World Cup?

He now works in a context far removed from his origins in the South African Council on Sport (SACOS), many of whose stalwarts, watching the World Cup, are asking exactly what has happened to the nation’s sport in the meantime. SACOS was the internal wing of the anti-apartheid sports struggle, but strictly non-aligned. It drew upon the principled, non-collaborationist opposition of the Unity Movement, the human rights aspirations of both the Freedom Charter and liberalism, and the self-liberation aspirations of the Black Consciousness Movement.

It was a unifying organisation, best known for its backing of the international sports boycott and the double standards resolution that prohibited contact with official bodies. But its main concern was with local recreation and communities: many of its clubs were based on neighbourhoods or workplaces and rooted in the political and economic struggles of ordinary working people. SACOS was a body committed to democracy, aiming to change the social geography of South Africa through a more equitable distribution of resources.

The non-racial sports field may have been a place of hopes and dreams, but SACOS and its principles were ruthlessly sidelined in the early nineties. Political injustice and socio-economic inequity played second fiddle to the international sports federations and corporate interests that were the African National Congress’ priority. The same influences that had brought mercenary, sanctions-breaking cricket tours to South Africa in the eighties were back in business.

This was a bizarre outcome of liberation. The recreational needs of the people have been a minor concern of government since 1994. Sport has been used in various ways: to reassure whites and promote an image of a rainbow nation, to advance the cause of racial nationalism, and even promote narrow agendas of power and wealth. It is this mix that has brought us the media and corporate event called the FIFA World Cup. Along the way the government has virtually nationalised football with a subsidy of R31 billion of taxpayers’ money.

The primary aim of SACOS was individual and community participation and well-being. The World Cup is about passive spectators and mass consumption. Since liberation, globalisation has destroyed the jobs of many associated with SACOS, especially in the textile and clothing industry. In exchange it has given them a packaged, branded commodity they are invited, at a price, to consume along with the products of foreign official sponsors like Coca-Cola and Budweiser. Colour, noise and excitement cannot disguise the passivity, or the colonial undertones, of this process.

The World Cup is about enrichment of the relatively few: FIFA, professional football players, contractors and multi-national sponsors. The masses are invited along to watch in awe and be persuaded that they and their country are benefiting. South Africa is being rebranded runs the argument, but no amount of spin-doctoring can alter the daily experience of ordinary people. This is indeed a literal case of bread and circuses. It’s all a long way from the struggles of SACOS around neighbourhood facilities and civil rights. But in a tragic sense, it’s not so far at all: pitifully little is being invested in local communities and the consequences in terms of crime and social dislocation make the point SACOS was making all the more relevant. The government’s primary involvement in sport should be about recreation and health, not mega-events.

SACOS was famous for the dictum, ‘No normal sport in an abnormal society’. It is not just a slogan from the past, but bears re-examination in the light of current events. When it suits them, politicians remind us that South Africa is by some yardsticks the most unequal country in the world. So it remains abnormal, yet billions of rand were available to spend on facilities for professional sport. When the circus moves on that debt will weigh heavily on a chronic lack of basic infrastructure for human development.

This article was first published in The Witness on 7 July 2010 and entitled ‘Abnormal sport’.