I'm thinking of a country. See if you can guess it.
This nation is preparing to host the most prestigious sporting event in the world. After decades of isolation, its leaders are eager to show off the political and social progress they've made.
Years of robust economic growth has muted critics and fueled this country's regional clout. But lately things haven't been going according to plan. The government of this country has been accused of bulldozing slums in order to project an image of prosperity and contentment during the upcoming tournament.
Need another hint?
A single party controls nearly every aspect of political life in this country and the international press accuses the government of coddling murderous dictators.
I must be thinking of China, right? Actually, I'm thinking of the Republic of South Africa. Two short years from now, South Africa will host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Or will it?
Residents of Johannesburg danced in the streets in 2004 when FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced South Africa's winning bid for the coveted soccer showcase. For South Africans, the honor was a fitting capstone on a decade of stunning progress.
The dismantling in 1993 of the official system of racial segregation known as apartheid led not to disaster, as many had forecast, but to a miracle of political reconciliation. Annual economic growth turned steadily positive, occasionally besting 5 percent. And, it seemed, there was nowhere to go but up.
During the first years of the twenty-first century, South Africa, with president Thabo Mbeki at the helm, emerged as a leader on the African continent. Where there was a need for a trusted conflict mediator, Nelson Mandela's handpicked successor could often be found brokering compromise between bitter political enemies. Mbeki played pivotal roles in negotiated peace settlements in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He earned praise from the United Nations Security Council for "his efforts to restore peace and stability in Cote d'Ivoire."
But those dreamy days must seem a mere memory for the silver-haired former exile. Lately, Thabo Mbeki has been getting it from all sides.
The size and power of Mbeki's party, the African National Congress (ANC), de facto confers the presidency of the nation on the president of the party. Mbeki recently lost the presidency of the ANC to his bitter rival, and former vice president, Jacob Zuma. Zuma's supporters accuse Mbeki of conspiring to prevent his ascension to the presidency of the nation in 2009. The feud has given ample fodder to the boisterous South African press.
South Africa's regional stature has tumbled along with Mbeki's domestic political clout. Mbeki's unwillingness to confront Robert Mugabe over the increasingly violent economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe has confounded observers. Pursuing a policy of "quiet diplomacy," Mbeki has resisted calls to openly chastise the aging dictator, or to restrict the supply of South African electricity to Zimbabwe.
And speaking of electricity, earlier this year Mbeki was forced to apologize for power outages that have crippled large segments of the South African economy. Worse still, recent outbreaks of xenophobic violence in the townships of South Africa's large cities have left many wondering if the nation is fit to host the World Cup at all.
Last year, in a humiliating blow to national pride, FIFA's Blatter told the BBC that the organization had made contingency plans to move the competition. The South African head of the tournament organizing committee recently conceded that deadlines for completion of two of the five stadiums being built specifically for the World Cup are "very, very tight."
Crime rates remain so high in South Africa that, for some, carjacking and armed robbery have replaced the smiling face of Mandela as the nation's trademark. The country is frequently featured on lists of the most dangerous countries in the world that are not at war.
In 2008 alone, criminal gangs robbed the luggage of nearly 40,000 foreign passengers passing through South African airports. With all of this negative publicity, will anyone actually come to the World Cup?
Probably. For one thing, everyone knows that soccer fans are a scrappy bunch. And South Africa does have some experience hosting big international sporting events. The 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 World Cup of Golf, and the 2003 Cricket World Cup were all held in South Africa. The South African leg of the 2006 A1 Grand Prix, held in Durban, was attended by more than 100,000 racing fans.
The world will have a better picture of just how prepared, or unprepared, South Africa is for the big event when it hosts the FIFA Confederations Cup next year. This dress rehearsal for the World Cup will feature the six continental champions plus Italy, the current World Cup holder.
As an added bonus, the South African national team is afforded guaranteed entry into the Confederations Cup and the World Cup. Should the team do unexpectedly well in either tournament, it would provide South Africans with a much needed morale boost. Though it will be too late to save Thabo Mbeki. While there is nothing to prevent him from serving again as ANC president, he must step down as president of the nation in 2009.
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