Fate Often Moves With Ironic Steps

22/07/2012 21:11 BST | Updated 19/09/2012 10:12 BST

Recently the world's most valuable sports team plays a friendly match at a South African stadium whose construction overlapped with large numbers of poor people being forced into housing which some brand a concentration camp.

Cape Town's ground, known as Green Point Stadium - built for the 2010 World Cup while many locals on low incomes were forced into Blikkiesdorp shacks - showcased Manchester United, valued this week at £1.43 billion by the US magazine Forbes.

And in a week highlighted by Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday, Paul Simon, once notorious for breaking the cultural boycott on apartheid, marked South Africa's freedom with a return to Britain. When Simon played London's Royal Albert Hall a quarter of a century ago, he faced criticism for defying the boycott to record his bestselling album Graceland in South Africa with a galaxy of the country's musicians and groups. But, for 12 million South Africans who still lack decent homes since the state's birth of democracy in 1994, Simon's Hyde Park harmony with Kwazulu-Natal choralists Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Graceland track Homeless is full of pathos.

While millions of children sang "happy birthday" to the former president known as Madiba - father in his Xhosa tribal language - Pretoria government spokesperson, Xolani Xundu cited three million homes to be built for South Africans. Yet for countless more who queued for days to fulfil dreams of voting their hero into office 18 years back, and much of the following generation, South Africa's place among the emerging world's economic powerhouses carries negligible meaning.

One in four people are unemployed, contrasted against 5.9 per cent for whites, and the proportion almost 49 per cent for young blacks - much worse joblessness than in powerhouses Brazil or India. And 42 per cent of the population live on less than two dollars a day, the internationally-acknowledged poverty line. Small wonder those who lost out when the £368 million Cape Town stadium rose say the cash should have been better spent.

South Africans across the country are donating 67 minutes of their time to commemorate the 67 years Mandela fought for the end of apartheid. In Durban, though, War on Want's partner, Abahlali baseMjondolo, chose to spend their 67 minutes protesting to demand inquiries into recent police violence and brutality. This is just one of more than 8,000 demonstrations that take place across South Africa every year, in response to some of the same old unfairness against which Mandela battled for six decades - high levels of inequality and state repression.

The gulf between rich and poor has barely altered since apartheid's demise, with whites still earning eight times more than blacks and South Africa now the second most unequal country around the globe. The housing deficit shows how little has changed, with just over eight million people living in so-called slums in 1994, and much the same number now..

Yet, when apartheid ended, the new government promised change and pledged to enshrine the right to housing in South Africa's constitution. So the 2.7 million houses constructed from 1994 to 2000 remain a long way short of keeping that vow. This shortfall owes more to the wrong priorities than available resources.

During the World Cup year of 2010, the government allocated 12.4 billion rand (1.8 billion dollars) to housing, but 17.4 billion rand (2.4 billion dollars) to host the championship. Rather than benefit the poor, the tournament saw thousands of poor South Africans evicted to transit camps miles from the city, with traders shut out of the games, and has left a legacy of stadiums that are costly white elephants.

Back in January, like Mandela's birthday, another milestone proved bitter-sweet for the nation. Tens of thousands of chanting and dancing revellers waved the green and gold colours of the African National Congress when Africa's oldest liberation movement celebrated its 100th anniversary. The stadium at Bloemfontein, transformed for the World Cup, overflowed with crowds hailing the centenary.

But half the country's people lives on just eight percent of the national income, according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions. And in the town of Clarens, stone-throwing protesters shattered the windows of a bus that was to take supporters to the celebrations in Bloemfontein, 160 miles away. The protesters called for the dismissal of ANC municipal leaders for denying them basic amenities, such as tap water.

Ministers have conceded their failure to return white-owned farmland to blacks - a central plank in the struggle for liberation.

In 1994 the government set its objective to redistribute 30 percent of agricultural land to blacks by 2014 - targeting a total of nearly 61 million acres (24.6 million hectares). Instead, the administration has bought only about six million hectares, of which a third has been resold by aspiring black farmers who failed to get enough support.

One melodic contemporary of Simon's, the world music trailblazer Peter Gabriel, also scored a chart hit with a single written as a tribute to Steve Biko, the black anti-apartheid campaigner who died after interrogation by white police. Four lines from the song retain a contemporary echo as others continue to struggle for justice:

You can blow out a candle

But you can't blow out a fire

Once the flames begin to catch

The wind will blow it higher