Gracious nation puts on a party to remember

Nation-building the overriding theme as S Africa defies doomsday predictions
Last Updated 11 July 2010, 17:01 IST
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On Saturday, a day before Spain and the Netherlands, two nations who have never won the World Cup, were to meet in the final, Danny Jordaan spoke of South Africa as the first African nation to hold the earth’s most important sports event.

His homeland has a word, Ubuntu, that means we are all interconnected, said Jordaan, who grew up under segregation, as a man of mixed ancestry. This South African concept reminded Jordaan of Donne’s Meditation XVII which includes the phrase, “No man is an island.”

For all the crassness of any World Cup, despite the private jets hogging the tarmac in Durban, keeping scheduled flights from touching down for the semifinal, there has been another side, dare we say idealistic, to this World Cup.

It was always meant as an instrument of ‘nation-building, social cohesion’, Jordaan said at a news conference in the gilded business enclave of Sandton in Johannesburg.

Jordaan, who is of mixed Dutch and Khoi ancestry, was reminding everybody that the Nelson Mandela legacy has been present, although the 91-year-old patriarch has not.

Africans ran the computers. Africans provided the security. Africans built the new stadiums. A woman operated a crane, Jordaan noted. He estimated that only one million of the 49 million citizens were able to attend matches, because of the scarcity and cost of the tickets.

But as the host team, Bafana Bafana, was eliminated, he said that South Africans of all colours morphed into rooting for Ghana (against the United States) while others rooted for Brazil (who doesn’t love Brazil?) and in the semifinals they chose from among Uruguay or Germany or Spain or the Netherlands.

They were fans. They could choose, just as they could walk into a shop or restaurant or polling place, which they could not do when he was young.

Jordaan, 58, is an admirer of Mandela. He did not do time on Robben Island but did do time, of sorts. The first time he voted, Jordaan told me in 2008 in New York, he was elected to parliament. Cool.

He flicked away skepticism about the cost of the World Cup, whatever it is, but as he rushed to the plane that would take him to the third-place match in Port Elizabeth, he volunteered: “There will be a huge post-World Cup blues on Monday. I hope they go to work.”

If they have jobs. Unemployment is said to be 25 percent in this country. Many of the helpful  and hopeful young people who got things right around stadiums in the past month told me they had no jobs when this is over.

There is no evidence that World Cups and Olympic Games leave any legacy of jobs and stability, but Jordaan’s premise is that people know South Africa better, as a place of business and pleasure and culture.

Jordaan has heard it all in recent years, from grumps like me who asked him if the media buses would run on time. On Saturday, he said, “I would tell people, ‘Just stay in your room and sulk’.”

He has lived with speculation that South Africa would never get to hold these games because it could not build stadiums or sell tickets. The head of FIFA, Merry King Sepp Blatter, once blurted that he had back-up nations, just in case. Recently, Jordaan told 702 Talk Radio in Sandton: “We’re moving to that stage of the tournament when teams begin to go home. But the first team to go home was team Plan B. They’re not even here.”

The British news media predicted mugging epidemics and forecast earthquakes in stable regions. Recently Jordaan told The Mirror of England: “I knew the critics had given up when stories started appearing that we had dangerous snakes in South Africa and that that could be a threat to the competition.  “People were saying they were so dangerous that one snake could kill off two teams. If that was all they had left to aim at us, I considered that to be them throwing in the towel.”

South Africa has held the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when hosts Springboks won and Mandela put on the green shirt. South Africa was also a co-host of the 2003 Cricket World Cup. But there is always the need to keep proving itself.

Yes, it is impossible to miss the heavy security that does, to a degree, turn every lovely suburban home into an island. At this stage, that is an economic problem more than a racial problem. But walking around Durban and Johannesburg, I realised how complex and evolving South Africa is.

“People don’t want to trust Africa,” Blatter said two years ago. “That is wrong. Africa has given so much not only to football but to the whole world. Someday, something should come back. So let’s have this World Cup. Let’s celebrate Africa. Why not?”

Blatter has said some loopy things in his time, but he followed through on his talk about the ‘moral responsibility’ to hold a World Cup in South Africa. Blatter did not quote John Donne, but Danny Jordaan did. In a World Cup of firsts, that seemed only right.

The New York Times

(Published 11 July 2010, 17:01 IST)

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