The write outlook: This is not Disneyland

South Africans remember well the build-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub (L) and FIFA President Sepp Blatter (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub (L) and FIFA President Sepp Blatter
(photo credit: REUTERS)
South Africans remember well the build-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The country became a giant construction site, people registered and converted their homes to accommodate international visitors; the daily countdown to readiness, the stadiums and the flags all added to the excitement that soon would engulf the country.
What marred the anticipation of the experience was the negativity of the international press, and in particular the British media. They had pre-determined that anyone visiting the country would be raped, robbed and murdered in their beds (perhaps not an unreasonable assumption given the countries crime statistics), they claimed that the stadiums would not be ready in time and that the infrastructure would not cope under the strain.
Day after day South Africans read and defended against the accusations that were hurled their way by British media. The UK media were wrong on all accounts and for a few blessed weeks South Africa (and even its criminals) not only behaved, but also managed to put on a spectacular event.
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And that what makes the BBC’s recent trip to Qatar particularly interesting, and somewhat different in approach to that of 2010. The BBC, amongst others, was invited by the Prime Minister’s Office on a PR exercise for a showcase visit.
The intention was to display the improvements to migrant workers’ lives in the country and to prove the falsehood of the claims of horrible abuse, of poor working conditions and appalling living facilities.
The BBC accepted. There was no pretense as to what this jaunt was. Respected London PR firm Portland Communications arranged the trip and everyone went knowing full well why they were there.
Only it didn’t turn out that way. When the BBC crew did wonder off on their own, and when they did try to speak to migrant workers, they were arrested and interrogated for two days. They were held without explanation and told it was a matter of “national security.” They were shown photos of themselves taken a few days prior, proving that they had been under surveillance throughout their trip. Try as they did, the BBC could not give Qatar the benefit of the doubt, much as it would have liked to. Or in the now immortal words of the Qataris when interrogating the journalists, “This is not Disneyland!” Never was there a more apt description of the region.
Throw into this mix the recent visit by Tokyo Sexwale, the former South African minister of human settlements, to Israel and the Palestinian areas earlier this month on the invitation of the Palestinian Football Federation. The trip was a fact-finding one and a result of the pressure for Israel to be expelled from FIFA, as a consequence of its “human rights abuses.” Given Sexwale’s history as a well-known anti-apartheid activist, he seemed well equipped to take on the task. And indeed he was. Because on his return to South Africa on May 8, not only did he fail to endorse the PFF’s bid for Israel’s expulsion from FIFA, but he described the situation between Israel and the Palestinians as being “two cheeks on the same face” swollen with tears. He was clearly moved by what he saw but did not place the blame at Israel’s door.
He will present his findings in Zurich.
This month has also seen the visit to Israel of none other than FIFA president Sepp Blatter. His intention was to deflect the push for Israel’s expulsion and the fallout that would no doubt follow.
Defending Israel’s expulsion, given the choice of Qatar to host the 2020 World Cup, and the latter’s human rights record, would drag FIFA into a mud brawl that would leave no one sparkling.
As the 2010 British media onslaught on the South Africa World Cup failed, so too did the Qatari PR exercise, as did the Palestinian attempt to show Sexwale a situation that didn’t exist. Media bias, expensive PR and political lobbying can be dangerous and damaging, but the fiction can only be sustained for so long, because after all, only Disneyland is actually Disneyland.
The writer is the author of Carry On Baggage – the story of a man who thought he traveled light. He is a commodity trader, daily radio talk show host and public speaker. He has been the non-executive chairman of the South African Jewish Report for the past four years.
You can follow him on Twitter @HowardFeldman.