South Africa’s 2020 vision

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By Cees Bruggemans, Chief Economist of FNB.

Are we ready to join the big time and host the 2020 Olympic Games?

We certainly seem to have the money (!), organizational talent (!) and chutzpah (jiddish for cheek) to do so with great success.

But would we have the collective will to do so?

There are presumably a fair number of VAT-paying voters (never mind income tax-paying ones) perhaps preferring instead to get a workable education system, five million more urban houses that don’t prematurely collapse, dependable and affordable water and electricity supply and a crime-free existence.

Not much to ask for, you will agree, but perhaps still quite a meal.

And if we can deliver all that and thereby defang the deep unhappiness apparently infesting a very large part of the electorate, we might as well also have another party to end all parties and host the Olympics.

But would it be as easy as hosting the soccer bonanza of 2010? Perhaps not.

The Olympics involves the hosting of many elite sports requiring special, expensive facilities, with limited sex appeal beyond their immediate followers.

In contrast, soccer is a mass sport that appeals to the larger part of our population. Most Olympic sports are not and don’t. So quite a specialized infrastructure outlay would be required for minimal returns.

As to which city, Durban has apparently the political inside track. But to force all activity into the greater Durban area would probably make less sense than making it a combined Gauteng-Durban effort connected with a high speed railway link.

That way we use existing infrastructure better while getting infrastructure additions in terms of a rapid long distance railway link that may in any case be needed.

We do have shown before that having big challenges can apparently get the inconceivable done, such as hosting a world soccer cup. To this we now owe our brand new upgraded urban highway systems, national airports, sports stadia, Gautrain and rapid bus systems, and a few other trophies. Including a much enhanced self-image and a new global recognition.

So the real proposition might be that we may want to host the 2020 Olympics (if we can win the bid), provided we also simultaneously deliver all the necessary domestic agendas such as improved education, expanded housing and crime-free existence.

Like a child being told to finish your food first if you wanted to watch your favourite television program.

That would perhaps be politically sensible (addressing fundamental and pressing needs) and perhaps sufficiently motivational to get all the really challenging jobs done at the same time.

As to how to link these agendas, that’s another question. It was relatively easy to hitch a broad infrastructure wagon to the world cup soccer bid. You want to play soccer? You will have to deliver the infrastructure first and not only in a narrow sense.

Doing the same with an Olympic promise, but incorporating not only yet more infrastructure but also housing, education and personal safety may be far more difficult.

But only such a comprehensive effort might make hosting the Olympics economically viable for South Africa. The final price tag on its own won’t, for it will be huge.

But that apparently is another minor detail.

Source: Cees Bruggemans, FNB Economics, July 26, 2010.

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