Friday, June 11, 2010

Soweto, soccer and slums

Soweto's Soccer City and FIFA's World Cup

Football, what North Americans call "soccer", can be unifying, fascinating, incoherent, and thankfully distracting - especially tournaments with global appeal. A good example is today's launch of the FIFA world cup championships in Soccer City, the gigantic stadium in Soweto, South Africa. Considering
Soweto's history, it's an odd twist of social circumstance.

Sited on the fringe of Johannesburg, Soweto was a pretty depressing place 25 years ago when I first visited it. Infected by the twin cancers of oppressive poverty and abundant crime, I have never seen more dismal, sickening slums. We toured the city with a Sowetan human rights organization looking to publicize its plight to the world.

The old apartheid government hid its culpability by calling Soweto a "township". Truth is it was a city with 2 million residents, one small fire station, and no running water. Soweto was a notorious symbol of the former government's racist policy and a former home of imprisoned Nelson Mandela. It needed far more than prevention programs - it needed wholesale political and social revolution. And as we know, that is now underway in one way or another.

Today it is still a pretty poor place and bears the legacy of too much crime. Electricity is still a problem and many roads are still dirt. In an issue of CPTED Perspective last year, my very competent South African CPTED colleague Tinus Kruger reported the difficulties of town life that is set among the magnificent South African landscape.

But modern Soweto contains tidy row houses, high end shopping malls, museums, B&B's, and a growing middle class. It also has a new sports stadium that will launch the beginning of the 2010 FIFA world cup. From personal experience, I can vouch for the outstanding hospitality and friendliness visitors will receive from South Africans.

Housing in Soweto

Meanwhile, footballers ponder every nuance. Will favorites Brazil, Spain or Argentina win? Will the US beat England? And to top the frenetic spectacle of the games, today I came upon a wonderful counter-point, a humorous new book, Soccer and Philosophy, written by modern-day philosophers.

The Wall Street Journal's John Heilpern reports on one of the sketches in Soccer and Philosophy:

...there is a soccer game between Germany and Greece in which the players are leading philosophers… Towards the end of the keenly fought game, during which nothing much appears to happen except a lot of thinking, the canny Socrates scores a bitterly disputed match winner. The enraged Hegel argues in vain with the referee, Confucius, that the reality of Socrates' goal is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, while Kant holds that, ontologically, the goal existed only in the imagination via the categorical imperative, and Karl Marx protests that Socrates was offside.

May the inventiveness of such prose morph off the page and onto the streets of Soweto as productive community development when FIFA ends.

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