Embracing S. Africa—and Soccer

In a normal year, a round-trip plane ticket from California to South Africa costs around $2,400. The 2010 FIFA World Cup, however, is set to make this year anything but typical for Africa’s most prosperous nation. Cape Town native Andre De Decker ’13 will incur an almost doubled fare for his flight home this summer, but he says it is a small price to pay in exchange for having his home country so prominently on the world stage: “I’m ecstatic about the World Cup. There’s a huge soccer following in Cape Town, and you can imagine it was just hysteria when we heard that South Africa had won the bid.”

South Africa is also the current center of attention for a select group of Stanford students who are pioneering the new Bing Overseas Studies Program in Cape Town. This Winter Quarter marks the first time such a program has been offered to students, and the feedback thus far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“[The Cape Town program] is especially good for those interested in Africa, but students who…want to have a very different experience than a European study abroad trip would also benefit,” comments Eva Orbuch ’11, a current participant.

The Cape Town Program aims to educate students on the political, historical, and cultural scene that is post-apartheid South Africa. This learning is facilitated through a diverse curriculum as well as group studies with students from the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape. Participants also travel to relevant historical and cultural sites, ranging from urban KwaZulu-Natal to national parks across the country.

Orbuch especially appreciates the fact that all the participants are “living in a house together, in an average suburban neighborhood of Cape Town…[a feature] which gives [them] a good amount of independence.” For Orbuch and the rest of the group, the independence made available by this centrally-located house enhances the program by affording students an opportunity to forge their own unique Cape Town experiences.

“Every student is engaged in a service internship in a variety of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations),” Orbuch explains, allowing students to get a more holistic view of life in South Africa than that which books and lectures can provide. She adds that the internship program is “an important part of [the] experience, rather than just doing academics.”

Being in Cape Town in the midst of the preparations for the aforementioned 2010 FIFA World Cup has also undoubtedly made the experience that much more special for Stanford’s current group of participants. In May 2004, the FIFA Committee selected South Africa over fellow finalists Morocco and Egypt; preparations for the games have been ongoing ever since. Nevertheless, while being named host nation garnered almost unanimously positive reactions, the actual preparations for said games have elicited a more mixed response.

For instance, in July 2009, the construction workers in charge of building the required stadiums went on strike in hopes of obtaining higher wages. Subsequent rumors emerged about potentially moving the World Cup to a different location, but the worker strike eventually subsided and the stadiums are currently on schedule to be ready for the games.
Others wonder to what level the interests of native and poorer South Africans are being considered. Orbuch notes, “The [South African] government is making some interesting efforts to quickly construct formal housing in place of the informal shack settlements…[likely] because the road directly leading to the airport is surrounded by shacks, and the government wants to make it look better for the World Cup.” Likewise, forcing local merchants who typically congregate outside of stadium venues to relocate is another all too frequent occurrence.

The ability of locals to attend the games themselves is another issue. De Decker explained that a “lottery system” is being used where “there is a specific number of tickets set aside for locals and a specific number of tickets set aside for internationals, and locals had to enter the lottery to have a chance at these tickets.”

However, this lottery process is not without its biases. For locals, winning this “lottery” simply allows them the chance to purchase a ticket. Orbuch characterizes the involvement of FIFA in South Africa as “a monopoly,” in which too often the “ticket prices [are] way too expensive for most locals to attend the games.” And if De Decker’s increased plane ticket prices are any indication, seeking to make a profit may—for better or worse—override the desires of South African soccer fans.

Nevertheless, the games will provide certain benefits for Cape Town and South Africa as a whole: the widespread improvement in infrastructure and expected boost in tourism will yield dividends for the country for years to come. More importantly, the 2010 World Cup will offer the rest of the world a small glimpse of the South Africa that Stanford students are currently experiencing. Orbuch concludes that “Cape Town is much more developed and modern than many people in the world realize, so having the games [there] could shed a new light on South Africa’s ongoing economic progress.”

De Decker believes the games will speak for themselves: “It all depends on how the World Cup goes. If we pull it off flawlessly, [South Africa] is just going to be that much of a better place in the world’s eyes, which is what it deserves.”

The opening round of the World Cup is scheduled for June 11.

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