As soccer stars and fans converge in South Africa for the World Cup, Christopher Werth travels into the Cape Town slums to investigate reports that people are being displaced to make way for the games. Werth’s reporting was supported in part by a grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Henry Demarest Lloyd Investigative Fund.
Kicked Out for the Cup?
South Africa is accused of clearing Cape Town slums to clean up for the big event.
By Christopher Werth
June 04, 2010
Victor Gumbi sits pensively beside a smoldering fire in a newly cleared lot, literally in the shadow of the recently renovated Ellis Park Stadium, one of the many venues where South Africa will host the World Cup football tournament, which kicks off this week. South Africa billed the world’s most popular sporting event as a boon to development that would help lift millions out of poverty, but Gumbi, a 35-year-old day laborer, says things are only getting worse. Not long after South Africa was awarded the tournament, an entire city block in the neighborhood where he lives was slated for destruction as part of a larger urban-regeneration scheme around the stadium, as Johannesburg began preparing for the throngs of tourists expected to come pouring in over the next few weeks. Late last year, the run-down building where Gumbi was squatting was torn down, leaving him in a small, jerry-built shack in the middle of a block of half-demolished houses that local residents have nicknamed “Baghdad.” Now many residents who’d been living in the area’s abandoned buildings for well more than a decade feel they’re being forced out because of the World Cup. “They want to hide us. They don’t want the Europeans seeing the people living here, so they demolished these dirty houses,” says Gumbi, who’s convinced he’ll be removed once and for all before the games actually begin.
Johannesburg city officials deny that any removals have taken place specifically for the tournament. Nevertheless, allegations of forced evictions for the World Cup have been sprouting up all over the country. Local headlines accuse South African police of rounding up the homeless and dumping them miles away (a charge the police deny), while residents from across Cape Town claim they’ve been relocated from their squatter settlements and dilapidated buildings to a temporary camp on the outskirts of town before the football fans arrive. In this case as well, the city dismisses such accusations, but it wouldn’t be the first time people have been uprooted in advance of a global sporting event. When Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics, an estimated 15 percent of the population was displaced as a result of the capital’s overhaul. And 20 years later, it’s thought that far more than a million residents in Beijing found themselves in the path of a bulldozer in the run-up to the 2008 summer games. Now a recent report on such mega-events by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, states that in many current cases human rights are going out the door as host cities, including Cape Town, are being cleaned up to appeal to spectators.
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