The South Africa perception turnaround

12 June 2009

Five years have passed since that extraordinary moment in Zurich when Fifa president Sepp Blatter declared that South Africa had earned the right to host the biggest party on the planet.

And with exactly one year remaining before the kick-off of the quadrennial showpiece of international soccer, South Africa can rightfully stake its claim as being the centre of the footballing universe.

Of all the obstacles that have so far been overcome, the biggest has certainly been international perceptions of South Africa – and, indeed, the rest of the continent.

The Project 2010 column: Craig Urquhart Crime, an Aids pandemic, political instability and xenophobia provided plenty of ammunition for a hostile media and millions of Afro-pessimists around the world.

And yet, like the miracle of 1994, South Africa has confronted its challenges head-on.

Paul Bannister, acting CEO of the International Marketing Council of South Africa, says he believes the country has turned the corner “after 18 very challenging months, with concerns over Polokwane, the Eskom outages, Jacob Zuma’s legal issues and Zimbabwe”.

Wadim Schreiner, managing director of international media research company Media Tenor, says foreign media coverage of South Africa has “completely turned around” since March.

“The Germans just can’t believe that this World Cup is actually going to happen. They are now reporting that we are more or less on time, but there’s always a hint of disbelief.”

The reality is that South Africa continues to meet its 2010 targets, and public perceptions of the country’s ability to host a successful tournament have now reached record highs.

As France (1998), co-hosts Japan and South Korea (2002) and Germany (2006) all proved, the success of the host nation is critical to the success of a tournament of this magnitude.

As a result, we can all be very grateful that Bafana Bafana, who have floundered for so long, are now showing signs of peaking at the rights time. Under Brazilians Carlos Parreira and his successor Joel Santana, the team has shown flashes of brilliance, and last weekend’s impressive victory against Poland was the perfect launch for South Africa’s Confederations Cup campaign.

A year before the previous edition of the World Cup, Germany was seriously divided, but that tournament provided the glue that united the nation in a sea of black, yellow and red.

South Africa too could be on the brink of a 2010-induced revolution that could change international perceptions of the country for decades to come.

Urquhart is a former Fifa World Cup media officer and the current editor of Project 2010