One of the most rewarding aspects of travel for me is that it is a learning experience, serving to correct my own misconceptions as much as it gives me the opportunity to try and communicate something of what my own life and country is like to those I meet. On more than one occasion in Sudan, I would have to give lengthy explanations to customs officials, bus drivers and other interesting people as to how it is possible for me to be white and South African. Many refused to believe that such a thing was possible. I’d like to hope that in a good humoured way, my white face and South African passport will leave behind some new views of my country – ones fractionally closer to an understanding of what my life is like, in exchange for the same incremental understandings of others’ worlds. But while it may be understandable that a customs official on the Ethiopia/Sudan border may still think that I live in some alternate African reality, I find it less amusing for an educated Chicago editor to have similar views.

I came across the piece, titled “Could the 2010 World Cup Cause a Food Shortage” on the Matador Network’s sports section and can’t let it go unchallenged. In particular, I have two objections to this piece. The first, and most easily dealt with, is that I feel it is wholly incorrect.

It suggests that there may be severe food shortage in the country, caused by food price inflation as price gouging of tourists in the country for the world cup causes basic staples to become unaffordable to the average South African.

Read the piece if you are feeling temeritous, and if you still think there is merit to the claims, I shall wager you a beer they will not come to pass.

The first rebuttal to this claim is that there is no plausible evidence for it. The economists quoted in the piece only claim a 1.1% – 1.2% likely rise in the cost of food. This is then paired with a link to an alarmist post in a blog on food gardening to hyperbolise the estimate to between 200% and 500%. I am not going to justify the facile views on supply and demand economics and supply chains in Living Seeds with a full rebuttal. Read the piece if you are feeling temeritous, and if you still think there is merit to the claims, I shall wager you a beer they will not come to pass.

So we are unlikely to see pentupled food prices across the economy simply because there is a world cup on. Even if we were to entertain this notion, tying it to child abandonment and causing a borderline famine is misleading in the extreme. While it is true that poorer South African households are struggling with issues of food security, this has less to do with food price inflation putting previously affordable food out of reach as it does with rampant HIV mortality destroying household incomes altogether.

Where malnutrition exists – and it does – it is disingenuine to tie it to some briefly correlating event like a world cup. It is also more than a little simplistically offensive to the large body of academic work on the problem to draw such conclusions, not to mention wholly unhelpful in mobilising support for what is an important issue (HIV) instead of some fad du jour.

Ok. That’s my spleen vented towards the logical substance of the post. These points could all be supported with further arguments, but if you really take issue with any of my conclusions, and honestly think that food prices will inflate to the point that orphan abandonment and famine will come knocking, then make your case in the comments and I will deal with you.

And so we come to Mr Kurtz and Heart of Darkness.

It’s understandable, even slightly funny on occasion, when people believe that South Africans keep elephants in their back yards, or that schools close in the event of lions nearby. If you couldn’t be expected to know better. And if you are not a participant in reinforcing such views.

It’s understandable, even slightly funny on occasion, when people believe that South Africans keep elephants in their back yards, or that schools close in the event of lions nearby.

It gets more than a little under my skin for a writer – nay, an editor – of a publication such as Matador to propagate such stereotypes. South Africa is not Ethiopia of the 1980s. Hell, not even Ethiopia is Ethiopia of the 1980s. While turning out interesting copy is important, and world cup-related writing is relevant, those considerations should not outweigh trying to avoid reinforcing the worst of the world’s one-dimensional stereotypes of Africa. Particularly when the story is untrue. And more so when it can be shown so by the most rudimentary fact checking.

Flame me if you want, but I am going to stick up for my corner of the world. I love Matador as a publication generally, but don’t feel inclined to let this slide. South Africa isn’t perfect – god knows we have enough problems to go around – but making up new ones and shouting them from a position of media privilege does nobody any favours.

Categories: Politics, Thinking
  • thank you for this. as travelers, educators, and global citizens, we owe it to ourselves and the world to correct these mistakes. BRAVO!

  • Mac

    Aha your fool, but it will come to pass – we will be starving in droves (or possibly even slightly larger numbers).

    I for one, Richard will take you up on your wager of a beer. The arguments in that piece are compelling, well structured and evidently thoroughly thought through!

    This goes further though because the global trend in rising food prices will make food unaffordable to everyone except possibly Warren Buffett and assorted others from the billionaires list. I very much doubt you will be able to afford that massively expensive beer to keep up your end of the wager, and if you do, it will probably be the last (albeit fluid) meal i will ever have, because food will be out of my price range.

    And don’t you dare come with your thinking and stuff and rubbish my clear, insightful and fascinating arguments.

  • Adam’s article asks a good question. Perhaps you don’t agree with the particular conclusions he makes — which are made in the form of a question not a statement — but the thought that droves of tourists entering South Africa for the sake of the World Cup is bound to have a strong effect on the country.

    Countries that host the Olympics rarely leave the occasion with a profit. This certainly was the case in my home — ok, high school only — town of Atlanta.

    And what about the egregious manner in which people impacted climate at the WORLD CLIMATE SUMMIT?

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/12/jon-stewart-copenhagen-limos-climate-deniers-video.php?campaign=th_rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+treehuggersite+%28Treehugger%29

    Is it so far fetched to believe South Africa will be similarly impacted. Keeping in mind also, Copenhagen and Atlanta, GA don’t already have the same issues with poverty and lack of resource that South Africa has.

    All that said, your line about South Africa in the 80s wasn’t South Africa in the 80s? So absolutely true. I was born in Johanessburg, moved to the US when I was 5. I told my teachers we rode elephants to school and I had a giraffe as a pet. They easily believed me, then gave me a time out when they realized I as lying.

    Nice blog, Richard. I’ve subscribed.

  • I remember a time, sitting on a bus in Los Angeles, when the guy across from me picked up on my different accent and asked where I was from. On telling him “South Africa”, he launched into this diatribe about how the war and famine really needs to be stopped – the world should really wake up and meet their responsibilities to South Africa.

    I was torn at the time – and still am – as to whether it should bug me that he would so completely misunderstand my country’s history, or whether I should be impressed with his energy, his demonstrated level of (misdirected) concern. I have never really worked out a final position about how I felt about that exchange, and the FIFA piece brought the same feelings about.

    That there will be an economic impact of some sort certainly seems inevitable. I would be the first to question whether there is wisdom to spending so many hundreds of millions on new soccer stadia when we struggle to provide basic services to the majority of South Africans. Many in government argue that the tourist influx will create much-needed employment, but whether it will is by no means a certainty.

    These are big debates, well-argued for and which should be of concern. The Matador piece, I felt, sidestepped these obvious concerns for something far less likely (inflation wiping out food security). That it was phrased as a question rather than an outright assertion merely allows the author to sidestep taking responsibility for having to make a case for this outcome. Which seems, based on his sources, impossible.

    It’s not really infuriating, so much as humorous and occasionally annoying though. I could not tell you what life is like in Idaho, so am guilty of the same ignorance towards many other places, whether I choose to write about them or not.

    The elephant story illustrates the point so aptly. Though the fact that you were caught out in the end at least indicates that we can no longer get away with the most exaggerated tales :)

  • Jason

    I’m with you on this, and it’s exactly the kind of critical engagement journalism needs more of. That said, I’m not comfortable with the word “disingenuine”, even if a handful of places seem to be punting it for real word status.

  • Damn. Searching for a formal reference in the hopes of googleslapping you with it, it seems the word I wanted was ‘disingenuous’. Bugger. At least urbandictionary.com agrees with me. Though this is the Internet, agreement somewhere is pretty much guaranteed.

  • Adam Roy

    This is obviously something that you’re very fired-up on, Richard, and I like to see people entering into dialogue over what I write, even if they’re saying that it’s nonsense.

    Still, I stand by what I wrote, for a couple of reasons. I think it’s unfair to say I’ve stereotyped South Africa. Not only did I source the statements I made, I took them from South African authorities. The figures on the price increases came from a South African economist, being quoted in a South African newspaper. I didn’t come up with the claim that the increase in child abandonment had something to do with rising food prices, South African social workers in Johannesburg said that in a Sky News report. I’m not guessing that half of all South Africans live in poverty – I took that figure from a report by the South African Regional Poverty Network – the most current figure they provide actually says 57% (http://www.sarpn.org.za/documents/d0000990/).

    As for Freeman, I’ve quoted him as a gardener and a ground-level reaction to the concerns about prices that have been expressed. I’d agree with you that the specific figures he gives for price inflation aren’t scientific – he’s not an economist, and I didn’t use his numbers for that reason.

    I haven’t said that food prices would “quintuple” that there would be a “borderline famine”, or even that there would be a “severe food shortage”. What I DID say was that economists (not me) had predicted a “small increase in the price of food”, and that this predicted increase was “part of a global shift, of which World Cup-related demand is just an exacerbating factor.” I don’t know if I’d say that’s illogical.

    Leigh’s also right – I don’t draw any conclusions, this is more of an investigative piece that asks a question and looks at the evidence for it and the possible effects, rather than an argumentative piece. I’m certainly not saying this is a new problem, or that it’s unique to South Africa – it’s pretty well established that when countries host these kind of events, as often as not, the businesses that don’t participate directly as suppliers or catering to tourists actually lose more on it than they gain (it happened pretty notably at the Athens Olympics).

    I’ll stop there. I like the blog, Richard – adding it to my reader.

  • Adam Roy

    One more thing I forgot to mention – my Community Connection question for this piece: “Could the World Cup cause a food shortage in South Africa and its neighbors? Have the South African government and FIFA done enough to prepare?” If you’re up for it, I’d welcome you to comment with your opinions – I’m always in favor of open dialogue on issues like this.

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