Public Health Goals: What Has the World Cup Cost South African Women?

Cape Town, South Africa.

A rainbow that could rival a fairy tale arcs above Table Mountain as I prepare to run Cape Town, South Africa, the country known as the Rainbow Nation. I take video and say aloud, “This is what South Africa hopes for: a pot of gold.”

Just two days before the commencement of the 2010 World Cup, I run through the Company Gardens on Government Avenue near Parliament to see how life plays out for the everyday citizen of Cape Town. My first stop is to help a young mother who is trying to carry three bags and a tired baby.

“They become heavier when they’re asleep,” she explains as I hold her things so she can shift weight. Behind her is South Africa’s National Gallery.

I wish her luck and keep on. I started my journey in Johannesburg, then flew to Durban to run the 85th Comrades Marathon on May 30 for Girls on the Run International through their charity, SoleMates. I finally arrived in Cape Town for the World Cup 2010; I chose Cape Town because it is the city that hosts the least soccer games yet most natural beauty. By noon, vuvuzelas are blazing in a city-wide practice round. The roar sounds the passion Africans have for this incredible sport. Still, I can’t help but wonder: what can the World Cup bring to this country (other than the 350,000 plus fans coming to watch the games)? Better yet, what can it do for African women and girls?

Public health experts frequently reference the staggering statistics coming out of South Africa when they discuss the challenges facing women’s health globally: 18 million orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than 14.1 million children estimated to have lost one or both parents to AIDS. As a whole, women account for approximately 60% of estimated HIV infections.

Dr. Maria Kaloianova, a 28-year-old female physician working in Cape Town whose own parents came to South Africa in 1991 from Bulgaria, shares from the front lines what challenges face South African youth. For boys, she says, they trend toward gangs and the need to work rather than go to school, yet she shares very different issues face girls.

“Girls end up being the victims of violence and sexual abuse. Teenage pregnancy is a huge problem in South Africa, looking at pregnancies starting at about 12–13 years of age,” says Dr. Kaloianova. “Pregnancy in the context of drugs and alcohol is just a recipe for disaster.”

Hence she also cites the biggest challenge right now to South Africa: HIV/AIDS. “Many children are what is termed ‘HIV orphans,’ [meaning they] have lost their parents to HIV, and thus take on responsibilities of looking after younger siblings and providing for them. They then have to grow up much faster than would normally be expected of them and don't get to experience childhood as it should be.”

According to a live webcast held on June 9 by Africa Action and the Wallace Global Fund, the political economy of the World Cup is directly tied to public health and race relations. The roundtable shared the current view of Afropessimism as, “to question the World Cup is to question whether Africa is capable of handling the infrastructure of sporting events of this size.” Yet the webcast raises fair questions: perhaps it’s not if South Africa could take on an event the size and cost of the World Cup, but if it should have? Is the country not already mired in all of the preceding health issues? Do they not already have poverty-ridden communities where water is being doled out by trucks? How can these not be valid concerns when South Africa spent 20 billion rand on not one, not two, but nine new soccer stadiums?

These questions are especially vexing considering that many are wondering if these expenses will ultimately lead to long-term economic growth for South Africa, or leave them deeper in debt than ever before. Indeed, leading economists expect the World Cup to boost the country’s GDP a measly half a percent. In a time when the global economy is wildly unstable, many are concerned about what the long-term outcome will be for South Africans who spent billions to host the Cup. New soccer stadiums—along with new airports, roads and mass transit—may all have positive long-term effects, but at the moment South Africa remains a third-world country that boasts first world-luxury. And the question remains: at what expense?

Read Part 2, Public Health Goals: Gender at Play in World Cup 2010.

Stay tuned for more from Kate and her Cape Town experience, coming Monday, July 19. Subscribe to our RSS feed to make sure you don’t miss these and the rest of the Her Blueprint posts!