In 1990, the landmark release of Nelson Mandela from prison began the dismantling of South Africa's infamous apartheid regime, with its white minority rule and harsh racial segregation, and led to the country's first multi-racial elections four years later.

With the end of the race-based political system, the newly elected President Mandela turned to sport as a way to begin healing the country.

Dramatized in the 2009 Clint Eastwood film, Invictus, Mandela sought to use the 1995 rugby World Cup, hosted by South Africa, to unite his country behind the success of the national team. Unexpectedly, the home squad provided just the opportunity he was hoping for. South Africa's "Springboks" defeated the heavily favored New Zealand "All Blacks" in the final, in front of 65,000 spectators at Johannesburg's Ellis Park.

Today, this event is remembered as a beginning moment of reconciliation in South Africa—most stunningly symbolized when Mandela appeared at the final match wearing a green-and-gold Springboks jersey, an emblem of the very apartheid regime that had imprisoned him—and also of the re-admittance of South Africa to the international community.

To many, winning a rugby tournament might seem to have little diplomatic or social importance. But sport was one of the most visible avenues through which the international community responded to the all-white National Party government in Pretoria. South African teams had been banned from international sporting competition during the last decades of the apartheid regime.

With segregated sports and international boycotts during much of the 20th century, sport in South Africa has rarely been solely about playing games. And the questions of race, of economic development, and of social justice have never been far from any discussion of sport.

This year is no exception, as South Africa prepares to host the highest profile event of the world's most popular game. Soccer fans throughout the world will spend the northern summer glued to their television sets as the world's largest single-sport event, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup heads to South Africa.

Sport and the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Throughout South Africa's 20th century, sport served as a focal point for the apartheid regime to impose its racist order on the nation and to insist on that order internationally. As a consequence, sport also generated some of the most high-profile—and occasionally violent—anti-apartheid action around the world.

Concerns over South African racism were first raised in the early 1930s. The 1934 British Empire Games (the precursor to the today's Commonwealth Games) were awarded to Johannesburg, but had to be shifted to London to assuage the concerns of some the empire's dominions over the "colour question."

But it was the election of the National Party in 1948 and the introduction of racial segregation laws that institutionalized apartheid—which lasted officially from 1948 to 1994—that brought the issue of international cooperation with South Africa, both within and beyond sport, into stark relief.

In the mid-1950s, T.E. Dönges, minister of the interior, announced that the government would assist Africans in participating in sport, but that their participation "must accord with the policy of separate development," effectively ensuring that racially based sport was a state-mandated policy.

Practically, such a policy meant a prohibition of racially mixed sport, fewer resources for African athletes compared to their white counterparts, and little opportunity for black athletes to represent their country internationally.

The National Party's apartheid policies raised red flags throughout international sport offices and, just as importantly, gave anti-apartheid activists a new platform for protest: sport.

The major international sport bodies acted, albeit slowly. When their calls for representative athletic teams were rejected, they moved to suspend and then expel South Africa.

Olympic sports were controlled by the South African Olympic and National Games Association (SAONGA), which was all-white and upheld the policy of racial segregation. Non-white athletes and officials, led by Dennis Brutus, responded by forming the South African Sports Association (SASA) in 1958. A year later, SASA raised with the IOC the issue of racial discrimination in South African sport.

When these protests did not succeed, SASA formed the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC), with the goal of replacing SAONGA as the country's representative Olympic body. By 1966, both SASA and SANROC leadership had been forced into exile in London and Brutus had been imprisoned on Robben Island, in the cell next to Mandela.

The South African government, through its IOC member, Reginald Honey, argued that "apartheid was an internal matter which did not concern the IOC." Eventually, however, the IOC insisted upon reforms. When these conditions were not met, the IOC banned South Africa from the 1964 Tokyo Games.

A similar process took place leading up to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as African nations banded together to oppose apartheid sport. In April 1968, the IOC withdrew its invitation to South Africa to compete in Mexico City and in 1970 formally expelled South Africa from the IOC.

Similarly, the all-white Football Association of South Africa (FASA) was suspended by FIFA in 1961. The suspension was temporarily lifted in 1963, but re-imposed a year later for the duration of the apartheid regime. South African players did not return to international soccer until 1992, the same year that the South African athletes returned to the Olympics in Barcelona.

The decisions by FIFA and the IOC, however long in coming, had effectively banned South Africa from international sport because of its apartheid politics. But there were sports beyond their reach, namely rugby and cricket, the most popular sports among the country's white minority.

It is to these sports that anti-apartheid activists both within South Africa and elsewhere next turned their attention. Protests focused not only on the white South African teams, but also on those nations willing to host South Africa for rugby and cricket matches: Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

These protests, from the late-1960s into the early-1980, often turned violent. But they galvanized public opinion and succeeded in having a 1973 rugby tour by the Springboks canceled by New Zealand authorities.

Even under the Olympic and Commonwealth banners, protestors focused on those nations continuing to compete against South Africa. Twenty-six African nations, plus Guyana and Iraq, boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics over New Zealand's attendance, while the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton were similarly threatened. [Click here to read more on Olympic Protest Movements]

Soccer and Race in South Africa

Given the prominence of sport to the liberation struggle, it should come as no surprise that the leaders of post-apartheid South Africa returned to sport—specifically by hosting global sporting mega-events—to promote both internationally and domestically a vision of the modern, multi-racial "Rainbow Nation."

This effort started with Mandela and the 1995 rugby World Cup, but has also included the 2003 cricket World Cup, the return of the 2007 rugby World Cup, and an offer at the last moment to host the 2009 season of Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket when security concerns forced the event out of south Asia. (Their bids for the 2004 Olympics (in Cape Town) and the 2006 FIFA World Cup were turned down.)

Yet, for all this focus on big sporting events in general, the fact that this summer's World Cup is a soccer tournament is far from inconsequential.

All sports in South Africa have been racialized—and "the racial divide," notes journalist Alec Russell, "often appears more entrenched now than in 1995." White players occupied 14 of the 15 places on the 1995 rugby team Mandela used to promote racial bridge-building. Yet when South Africa hosted and again won the rugby World Cup 12 years later the makeup of the team had only shifted to 13 out of 15 of the players being white.

Yet, if rugby has been white South Africa's game, soccer is black South Africa's game. As journalist Christopher Merrett notes, from the early-20th century, soccer "undemanding of space and economical of time, became symbolic of African urban life."

This racial distinction is made clear in the film, More Than Just a Game, and the book of the same title. This powerful South African docudrama tells the story of political prisoners who were jailed under the apartheid regime in the 1960s on the infamous Robben Island prison.

The prisoners created and ran their own soccer league on the island as a way to be both physically and politically active, resisting incarceration through their passion for the "beautiful game." Current South African President Jacob Zuma was a referee in the league, the Makana Football Association, which was granted honorary membership in FIFA in 2009.

Economic Development, Infrastructure, and the Promises of the World Cup

If sport in South Africa has been highly racialized, the World Cup also highlights how global sport connects with economic development and social justice.

On a day in early May 2010, with the opening of the World Cup barely a month away, President Zuma was in Durban to open a tourism trade show.

Zuma's five decades in public life have been marked by hardship and oppression. A longtime member of the African National Congress (ANC), he survived a 10-year sentence at Robben Island to see the end of apartheid and rise to lead—although not without considerable political and personal controversy—the South African republic.

This day, the sufferings of apartheid seemed a faint memory. Of greatest concern for those who crowded in to see the President was the World Cup's impact on the domestic tourist industry and the readiness of the nation to host the event.

"South Africa," the President confidently assured the delegates, "is ready for the World Cup."

Behind Zuma's predictably confident statements about tourism, however, other debates are raging about racial inequality, poverty, and this greatest of all soccer pageants.

In a country facing serious issues of economic hardship and crime, many around the world are questioning the use of South Africa's precious resources to host a month-long soccer tournament. Will it bring, they wonder, promised economic opportunity and a new international face for South Africa across the globe? What does South Africa hope to gain from investing in a soccer tournament?

In South Africa, where nearly eighty percent of the country's more than 49 million people are African, soccer is, to be sure, a vastly popular game.

But generalizations are challenging in such a diverse country. There are eleven national languages, nine of which are African, and English (13.3%) and Afrikaans (8.2%) are the primary languages of less than one-quarter of the population. Even the 9.1% of the population that is classified as "white" is marked by cultural and class differences between Anglo- and Boer-descendants.

Nearly half of the country lives in poverty, surviving on less than 322 Rand per month (today less than $43 USD). Poverty is not surprisingly accompanied by one of the world's higher incidences of violent crime and, as in virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa, the challenge of HIV/AIDS. Over 5.7 million South Africans are infected with HIV, a disease most prevalent in women 25-29 and men 30-34.

Analysts of "mega-events" argue that hosts pursue these events in an effort to realize some generally acknowledged, but rarely demonstrated, benefits: economic growth and social opportunity being chief among them.

Arguments of economic growth usually carry the day when bidding decisions are made. This is of little surprise, as bidding committees are often comprised of the constituencies most likely to benefit from high-profile events occurring in their jurisdiction: politicians, at all levels of government, and civic and business leaders.

As a result, development projections dominate the public discussions of such events. For the Olympic Games or World Cup, promoters tout the creation of new public facilities and suggest a related increase in sport participation—although there is little empirical evidence to support such claims.

Infrastructure development, both directly related to events as well as incidental growth—think of the train line to Athens' airport that was built in anticipation of the 2004 Olympics—is also highlighted as a legacy of such events. This infrastructure supports the tourists that organizing committees assert will attend events and continue to visit host communities.

It is in the hopes of realizing such benefits that South Africa is going to such great lengths to welcome the "world"—either in person or through television, with an anticipated cumulative audience of 26.9 billion.

The South African government is investing 28 billion Rand ($3.7 billion USD) in the World Cup. Two "line items" comprise the bulk of the expenditures. Nearly 10 billion Rand will be spent on what organizers hope is a physical legacy of landmark facilities. FIFA 2010 will be played at ten venues located in nine cities throughout South Africa. Five brand-new soccer stadia will be built in Cape Town, Durban, Nelspruit, Polokwane, and Port Elizabeth—some in the poorest regions of South Africa—while five others will be upgraded.

Transportation infrastructure throughout the nation will also receive an investment of 13.6 billion Rand ($1.8 billion USD) thanks to the World Cup. This money will be spent modernizing existing systems, creating new rail and bus rapid transit lines, and improving roadways. In early May, a new terminal was opened in Johannesburg and travelers to and from Durban were using a brand-new airport.

These facilities have been built to welcome the nearly 500,000 tourists projected to visit South Africa during the World Cup who, it is hoped, will spend 8.5 billion Rand ($1.12 billion USD).

Overall, projections call for FIFA 2010 to contribute 55.7 billion Rand ($7.35 billion USD) to the South African economy, add 19.3 billion Rand ($2.5 billion USD) of tax revenue to the government's coffers, and create 415,400 jobs, including the 20,000 construction jobs that have already been filled.

There are doubts, of course, about whether a month-long sporting event can deliver the hoped-for economic gains, to say nothing of realizing any meaningful social change.

The notion that a major sporting event can both raise the profile of and generate profits for the host has traditionally been linked with the 1984 Los Angles Summer Olympics, the first to generate a substantial profit.

Analysts contend that such promises are rarely realized and do not generate the promised economic boon. As political scientist David Black notes, such estimates have been criticized for "greatly overstating prospective 'windfalls'", which they compound by a "tendency to understate costs."

Economic impact analyses are often guilty of overlooking the ways in which mega-events siphon off monies in the local economy that would normally be spent elsewhere while ignoring the "crowding-out effect" when projecting the number of tourists (and their wallets) an event will attract.

These events, while attracting spectators, also preclude other visitors from travelling to the region. It was estimated that the 2002 World Cup attracted 460,000 visitors to co-host South Korea, the identical number who visited the country in the same period during the preceding year.

In addition, specialized sporting facilities are not widely used after mega-events conclude, have little demonstrated connection with increased sporting participation among the general population, and lead to considerable public debt. The dots are being connected in 2010 between the shaky financial legacy of the 2004 Athens Olympics and the current economic meltdown in Greece.

This is perhaps an extreme case, but in 1994, World Cup organizers in the United States predicted that the event would generate a $4 billion boost to the national economy. Research, by economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson, however noted that "the host cities experienced economic growth that was $4 billion less than would normally have been expected for these metropolitan areas."

Yet, research about the economic impact of large sporting events has focused almost exclusively on events in the developed West (especially Europe and North America). This is a function of the sample size. Mexico has hosted both the Olympics and the World Cup. South America has hosted numerous World Cups, while Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the 2002 World Cup and have both been host to the Summer Olympic Games.

But major sporting events in the global south have been limited to "second-order" events such as the Commonwealth Games (Kingston, Jamaica, 1966; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1998), and rugby and cricket World Cups.

With such little history, it is unclear whether the risks of unrealized benefits are greater or lesser in the developing world. In 2010, do the potential benefits of public investment in the World Cup outweigh the risks of further entrenching gaps in South African society? If South Africa's hoped-for economic and infrastructure rewards go unrealized, will the investment have been worth it?

Winning the World Cup can hardly be the incentive for hosting. Only seven nations have ever won and South Africa's team (the Bafana Bafana) is ranked a lowly 90th in the world. But there are other markers of success, especially in terms of a nation's international reputation.

Germany did not win as 2006 host, but the organizational skills displayed and the positive atmosphere that surrounded much of the tournament did much to improve Germany's image worldwide. And the 2006 success is being leveraged in the German Olympic Committee's bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Munich.

Increasingly sporting events are stepping stones to ever bigger sporting events. Rio successfully hosted the 2007 Pan-American Games and now is awaiting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Delhi organizers have made clear that a successful 2010 Commonwealth Games is a prelude to an Olympic bid. Kenyan officials have also suggested that they might bid for the 2028 Summer Olympics to celebrate meeting national economic development targets.

An Olympic bid may even be in South Africa's future as sport mega-events become a symbol of a nation's arrival on the world stage.

With Potential Reward Comes Risk

In the face of such aspirations, critics have questioned whether a global sporting event organized on a northern model can be delivered in the global south. On the ground, organizers face substantial challenges. Chief among these is ensuring the safety and security of World Cup fans. Soccer hooligans have to be policed everywhere, but a 2002 U.N. survey on crime ranked South Africa first among the countries studied for murders and gun violence, second for assaults, and third for robberies.

Concerns were heightened by the violence that occurred in January 2010 at the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. Separatist rebels opened fire on a bus carrying the Togolese team and officials, killing three and injuring 10 others. Angola is not, of course, South Africa, but the attack certainly raised concerns.

More directly relevant to the Cup, it was revealed in April 2010 that the June 12th U.S.-England match in Rustenburg had been the subject of a credible terrorist threat. As a result, the FIFA 2010 security strategy will feature 40,000 uniformed personnel and cost 1.3 billion Rand (approximately $170 million USD).

Such efforts are not unique to South Africa. At the recent field hockey World Cup in India spectators at the stadium in Delhi faced as many as seven separate security checks before they were finally granted admittance.

Along with concerns over safety, Cup analysts are worried that too few people will come to watch the games live. A day before the terrorist threat to the U.S.-England match was made public, and two months before the opening kickoff, organizers announced that 500,000 tickets for FIFA 2010 remained unsold, roughly one-sixth of the three million available tickets.

This announcement was accompanied by the usual confident assertions that the event would be a well-attended success. Danny Jordaan, the organizing committee CEO, noted that it would be "tragic" if tickets remained unsold and exhorted his countrymen to "go buy now."

But for many South Africans that is easier said than done. For non-Africans, tickets range in price from $200-450 USD for preliminary round matches and face values of $400-900 USD for the final on July 11th. For residents of a country where in 2008 UNESCO estimated the gross per capita income to be $5820 USD, FIFA created a category of tickets specifically for South Africans costing approximately $20 USD for early-stage matches and rising to $140 USD for the final.