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Cape Town’s White Elephant

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

Documentary maker Ryan Chapman looks at the legacy of the South Africa World Cup and Cape Town’s White Elephant.

Never mind whether West Ham will fill the 54,000 seats of the Olympic Stadium, spare a thought for Ajax Cape Town. Currently languishing towards the bottom of the South African Premier League Ajax moved to the Cape Town Stadium, newly built for the 2010 World Cup, and now frequently play in front of crowds that barely fill 5% of it.

Towards the end of 2012 I was in Cape Town to shoot a short documentary investigating life after the World Cup entitled Cape Town’s White Elephant (the YouTube video of which you can find below). The stadium, built to host eight matches including a semi-final, remains a prominent feature on the city’s skyline and one can barely imagine Green Point Common without it today. However, the venue is still subject to huge controversy.

Many people’s first choice for the city’s World Cup venue, including the local government themselves, was an upgraded Athlone Stadium, the former home of Ajax Cape Town. Not only would this have been far cheaper, it would have improved an area in need of more investment and infrastructure.

Another option was to upgrade Newlands Rugby Stadium, and in fact, South Africa won the bid to host the tournament on the basis that Cape Town would upgrade stadia, not start from scratch. But FIFA later changed their mind and all but forced the government into spending extortionate amounts on the brand new, squeaky-clean venue by the ocean.

When I visited, Ajax hosted Black Leopards in a mid-table Premier League clash, and succumbed to an 80th minute goal to lose the match 1-0, in front of just a couple of thousand people. It’s easy to imagine what a 55,000 capacity all-seater stadium looks like during a match with an attendance of just 2,000.

When my team Cambridge United get 2,000 fans, the stadium still looks half-full. When the same happens to Ajax it’s as if the game is being played behind closed-doors with only the players’ closest family members invited… and the atmosphere (or lack of) suggests it, too.

While some of their matches do manage higher attendances, the vast majority fail to hit 4,000. Last summer they did actually play in front of a near-sellout crowd at the stadium… the visitors? Manchester United, in a pre-season friendly. Somewhat predictably, the figures suggest hardly any of those in attendance have been back since. (Which is perhaps a little surprising since Ajax Cape Town gave the visitors a pretty decent game, managing a 1-1 draw.)

In fact, almost all of Ajax’s matches could have been played in their former home, Athlone Stadium (capacity 30,000), located in a poorer suburb of Cape Town where most of their fans actually come from. So why did the club move to the iconic city centre location? To attract more people to games, probably. Sadly, however, it seems like the novelty of visiting a World Cup stadium has fast worn off for most Capetonians.

So far in 2013, other than a few poorly attended football matches the stadium has hosted a sold-out Red Hot Chili Peppers concert as part of their world tour. A few other concerts are scheduled throughout the year, but this won’t be enough to stop the stadium losing public money left, right and centre. Money that South Africa’s poverty-stricken population are crying out for.

Cape Town Stadium is essentially just a very expensive monument… and an unfortunate reminder that FIFA care for nothing other than how big a profit they can walk away with.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed on this blog are those of the author – they don’t necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF. Have your say below and play nice…

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