Rian Malan

Happy Christmas from Jo’burg

Rian Malan gets ready to celebrate Christmas in South Africa and predicts a new year full of insane overspending on the 2010 World Cup

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Once upon a time, in the desolate Great Karoo, my father pointed out a distant line of bluegum trees marking the route Father Christmas was likely to follow when he came to deposit gifts under our Christmas tree. I was around four at the time, but even then I sensed something odd about Christmas in Africa. The cards on our mantelpiece depicted snow, but we’d never seen such a thing. Our windows were shuttered against heat, not icy blizzards. Even our Christmas tree was not a real Christmas tree, just a bough hacked off a thorn tree and draped with shreds of tinsel. But the four-year-old is a foolish creature, so I sat there for hours, peering hopefully into the sun-blackened immensity, waiting for Santa Claus to materialise. He didn’t, and Christmas was never quite the same again.

That was sad, because there was initially something quite magical about the strange goings-on depicted in Christmas carols — holly, ivy, reindeer, sleighs, the snowfield outside King Wenceslas’s window and candles glowing in the manger.

But magic fades in the harsh light of day, and Christmas Day down here can be very harsh indeed. The sun is at its zenith. Trees droop. Dust devils dance across the plains. Sweat drips down your temples onto your plum pudding.

The only yuletide whiteness we knew was the whiteness of apartheid, which reserved certain jobs for whites only. It was well-known, for instance, that God, Jesus and Father Christmas were white men. This created a dilemma for department store managers, who struggled to find whites to play Santa Claus in their jolly storefront tableaux. Older and wiser white males cautioned against it, but I applied for such a job when I was 16. They sat me down in the burning sun, wearing a suit of the heaviest, scratchiest red serge and a hood of the suffocating same. I sat there for two weeks, crying ho-ho-ho as evil toddlers yanked at my fake beard and sweat pooled in my Wellingtons. The suffering was unbearable. Never again!

These days, the best thing about Christmas in Johannesburg is the mass exodus it precipitates around mid-December, when the bourgeoisie heads for the beaches. For the next several weeks the city feels like the capital of some sleepy banana republic, streets empty, shops deserted and grass rioting on unkempt pavements. Christmas is the best time in Jo’burg. Heatwaves climax in apocalyptic thunderstorms. Flowers bloom profusely. I sit in my perfumed garden, beset by a mild case of 2010 World Cup fever.

According to the newspapers, 450,000 football fans are expected to descend on South Africa next June, and accommodation is at a premium. One gathers that the superrich (Roman Abramovich and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen) plan to moor their super-yachts off Cape Town, but lesser mortals face a dreadful gouging as they battle for scarce beds. A nice bed & breakfast presently costs around fifty quid a night. Come June, the ask rises four-fold. Even the rich would wince at this, and where does it leave the common-or-garden football hooligan?

As readers may vaguely recall, I recently became the owner of a ramshackle property boasting several tumbledown old dwellings and no fewer than seven toilets. It dawned on me the other day that if I strew the floors with mattresses and cram ’em in at a ratio of say, seven football hooligans per toilet, I could accommodate nearly 50 fans a night, paying fifty quid apiece. Throw in the profits on beer and food and we’re looking at a nice little business here.

With this in mind, I drafted an ad — ‘2010 World Cup accommodation, dirt cheap’ — and attempted to place it on a website that specialises in such dealings, only to be told that the wording was forbidden. I said, what do you mean, forbidden? They said, ‘“2010 World Cup” is a trademark owned by the Federation of International Football Associations, aka FIFA. You can only use those words if you advertise on FIFA-approved websites, in which case FIFA will take a commission ranging from 30 to 65 per cent.’ I said, ‘that’s larceny!’ My informer chuckled. ‘You’re at the base of a steep learning curve,’ he said.

Until then, I’d assumed that FIFA was a charitable body, dedicated to the orderly running of international tournaments and general upliftment of the beautiful game. This was as daft as believing in Father Christmas. Up close, FIFA is as ruthless as any conglomerate, especially when it comes to the sordid business of licensing and branding. They dragged a patriotic bar-owner into court the other day for putting ‘2010 World cup’ on his shingle. They warned that anyone showing up in T-shirts bearing logos other than those of sponsoring multinational corporations would be turned away at the gates. They even cut a deal with America’s Anheuser-Busch, which now holds exclusive rights to sell its anaemic beer in our soccer stadiums.

And if you think that’s rich, consider the plight of Richard Lavelle, a businessman who leases a box at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium. Lavelle is a rugby fan, but he was quite looking forward to inviting friends to join him for a World Cup-related piss-up in his 30-seat enclave with bar attached. The other day, he learned that FIFA had commandeered his box for the duration. He said, you can’t do that! FIFA said, yes, we can. Turns out there was a clause in the small print that had previously eluded Lavelle’s attention, but FIFA was willing to be magnanimous. Indeed, it was willing to rent his box back to him — one million dollars for the dubious privilege of watching six mostly opening-round games while swilling second-rate Yankee Budweiser.

The galling thing is that taxpayers like Lavelle and I are paying for this World Cup, and paying extremely dearly. Our politicians were so eager to stage the event that they jumped through every hoop FIFA held up for them, embarking on a spending spree that threatens to leave us bankrupt. We built or refurbished ten giant stadiums, most destined to become white elephants after the final whistle. We instituted rapid bus services in most major cities, built hundreds of new freeway interchanges, even a high-speed train to shuttle football fans around greater Johannesburg.

At every turn, costs were inflated by the uniquely South African form of pork-barrelism known as BEE, or Black Economic Empowerment, which dictates that the previously downtrodden must get a share of all spoils. most stadium tenders were thus awarded not to the lowest bidder, but to hydra-headed joint ventures between glamorous black businessmen and white-owned construction outfits whose attitude towards cost overruns was sometimes quite casual.

The upshot, according to an engineer I met the other night, was overspending on a dumbfounding scale. ‘If we’d built my stadium in Poland,’ he said, ‘it would have cost about a third of what you guys have paid.’

What can we do? The die is cast, and even I am quite touched by the pride you see in ordinary men’s eyes as they contemplate the ziggurats we have built to impress you foreigners. I think it’s going to be a very nice World Cup. It’s what comes after that worries me. South Africa is already beset by shrinking tax harvests, and the World Cup will cost us as much as £4 billion. What if we wake in the aftermath to find we can no longer afford the welfare grants upon which the teeming poor rely for survival?

Ah, well. Let’s look on the bright side. The sun is hot, my heart is full and it is, after all, almost Christmas. If anyone wants to spread a sleeping bag on my floor next June, contact me behind FIFA’s back and I’ll offer you the best World Cup deal in town.