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World Cup: Are South Africa's stadiums white elephants?

South Africa's 10 new stadiums face uncertain future

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africa dazzled the world with its new 2010 World Cup stadiums.

The sports bowls built around the country have been almost universally praised for their modernity, their beauty, and their ambitious scale. In all, the country built or renovated 10 new stadiums in preparation for the games at a cost of more than $2 billion.

But some are asking whether that money was spent wisely in a country where so many live without basic services such as flush toilets and trash removal.

Furthermore, they want to know where the money will come from to sustain the enormous structures once the soccer stars, fans, and perhaps most significantly, FIFA, leave South Africa after the final match on July 11.

"I don't know how they're going to be maintained," said Horatio Motjuwadi, editor of The Sowetan, who called the stadiums white elephants that South Africans are now stuck with for a long time to come. "You need a mathematician to figure out how they are going to move forward and pay for them after the World Cup."

Nowhere is this as true as in Polokwane, a rural city of just over 500,000, three hours to the north of Johannesburg. A satellite towns with a racially polarized and economically disparate population, Polokwane is perhaps most famous for being the place where former President Thabo Mbeki was ousted as leader of the African National Congress party in 2008, which led to him stepping down as president.

For the first time in its history, Polokwane now has an iconic landmark, the state-of-the-art Peter Mokaba Stadium, which holds over 40,000 people. The design of the enormous concrete structure resembles South Africa's baobab tree, with circular ambulatory ramps simulating tree trunks and overhead steel "canopies."

It was named after a deceased politician from the National Conress Party who fought against apartheid but was also well known for using the slogan "Kill the boer, kill the farmer." For a stadium in a majority white city, it's an odd legacy to honor.

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In spite of its grand scale and inspired architecture, Mokaba Stadium hosted just four games during the entire World Cup, all during the first round. Now it's unknown how it will pay for itself. Reports in the South African media estimate that its annual maintenance costs will be around $2 million.

Polokwane has no local football team and even if visiting teams come to play, it is unlike to draw enough fans to fill the 40,000 brand new seats. Of the 212 football games played by South Africa's Premiere Football League in the 2009-2010 season, only four drew more than 40,000 fans, according to Sports Industry Magazine.

News this week that Port Elizabeth's bankrupt football club was sold to investors from outside the city has raised concerns that Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium might also sit unused.

"I have no doubt that without a full-time professional team in the province, the stadium will become a white elephant," said Lungsi Mooi, general manager of the club, to the Associated Press.

In Cape Town, Green Point Stadium is covered in a sheath of woven fiberglass so that it glows at night like a floating bowl. But its location on six city blocks in a prime real estate area has also created controversy.

In 2006, the city's government published a study that found the stadium's location offered the least amount of economic gain to Cape Town's resident. In fact, repairs to several older stadiums in the surrounding area could have led to savings that could have paid for 250,000 new homes for the city's poor, according to researchers.

But FIFA wanted a stadium that would sit between South Africa's iconic Table Mountain and Robben Island, according to reports, causing the football federation's president, Sepp Blatter, to come under fire.

"I really think that we're going into Green Point because Sepp Blatter says: 'I like Green Point,' not because it is the best thing for South Africans," Cape Town's then-mayor, Helen Zille, said in 2006.

Like the other stadiums around the country, the financial viability of Green Point Stadium in the future has not been outlined in detail.

President Jacob Zuma has said the stadiums will be used for the country's rugby and cricket leagues and argues they should be seen as an investment in the country's future. Zuma has already suggested that South Africa will bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

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"We are also looking into getting foreign soccer stars, especially during the European League season, to come play here," Zuma told reporters last week. "There are a number of plans in place to make the stadiums profitable after the last whistle blows."

Previous World Cup hosts such as Germany, France, and the United States have been able to use their stadiums for a wide range of sporting events after the soccer games ended. Japan and South Korea, the co-hosts of the 2002 games, however, had more difficulty.

The two countries built 18 state-of-the-art stadiums from the ground up (two already existing stadiums were renovated). In South Korea some of the venues, like the 40,000-seat Jeju World Cup Stadium in Seogwipo — a small island province in South Korea — are reportedly filling a mere 10 to 20 percent of their seats during the country's professional football matches.

Previous Olympic hosts have also struggled with white elephants. The Bird's Nest stadium where the 2008 Summer Olympics kicked-off in Beijing has been used only once since the opening ceremony.

Despite their doubts, some South Africans are still choosing to focus on the physical glory of the new stadiums before national buyer's remorse can set in.

"I think everyone knows that the money we spent on stadiums was crazy," said Anton Harber, a prominent South African journalist and professor at the University of Witwatersrand. "But it did teach us that we can build big, beautiful things."

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Construction of Durban's World Cup stadium.

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