South Africa basks in new-found unity

Last Updated 15 July 2010, 16:18 IST

As host of the most-watched sporting event on earth, South Africa set out to reinvent itself in the eyes of the world, casting off its reputation as a place defined by violent crime, poverty and AIDS. To a remarkable degree, it succeeded. But as the World Cup ended last week, what most surprised South Africans was how much the month-long sporting extravaganza had changed the way they see themselves.

“This World Cup brought out South Africa’s better angels,” said Shaun Johnson, a writer who leads a charitable foundation that Nelson Mandela helped establish. “In this country, so riven racially, it’s unbelievable how much this World Cup has brought us together.”
A fledgling democracy that has struggled to address its profound social ills proudly discovered it could deliver a mega-event that required years of careful investment and planning. A country whose politics have been damaged recently by bitter, racially tinged invective, offered hundreds of thousands of visitors an affectionate welcome.

And a body politic fractured by race and inequality caught glimpses, perhaps as fleeting as the games themselves, of what it would mean to overcome those barriers. At a free fan park set up for big-screen viewing of matches on the public square known as the Grand Parade in Cape Town, South Africans mingled across lines of race and class in a way that is rare and precious here.

A black waiter and a white college student shared a cigarette as they gabbed about soccer in the square, where southern Africa’s first white settlement was established in the 1650s and Mandela first spoke when he was freed after 27 years in prison. Black teachers from the townships merrily downed cups of beer amid rowdy white fans. A mixed-race theatre worker, ordinarily fearful of crime, took his first nighttime ride on a public train along with vuvuzela-blowing, Xhosa-singing South Africans so he could be part of something larger than himself.

“This experience will stay with me,” said the worker, Ricardo Abrahams, 35, a production manager at the Artscape Theatre. “It’s something unique.” Again and again, South Africans described doing metaphorical double takes as their countrymen — and sometimes they themselves — did unexpected things. Athol Trollip, the parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, supported mostly by white and mixed-race voters, said his family — which had followed the ‘white’ sports of rugby and cricket — got caught up in soccer, the passion of the black majority.

“In my home, no one used to watch soccer, except for my son,” he said. “The rest have never watched it in their lives, but they sat glued to it for the first time.”

Niq Mhlongo, author of ‘After Tears,’ a comic novel of black township life, rooted in the final match for the Dutch — colonialist forebears of the white Afrikaners who for decades oppressed blacks here — in part because it would do the country good to “see our own Afrikaner brothers being happy.”

Before the World Cup started a month ago, the conversation here was focused less on the tournament’s potential spiritual benefits than on whether it made sense to lavish $5 billion on a giant party for the rest of the world when South Africa has such staggering social needs.

This debate over priorities continues, but for now optimists are talking about the short-term gains and long-term promise the hosting of the games allowed.

Job opportunities
The government estimates that spending on stadiums, roads, airports and new public transportation services, among other World Cup-related investments, helped create about 1,30,000 jobs, softening somewhat the impact of a global recession that has cost South Africa more than a million jobs. And while some, if not most, of the stadiums may turn out to be white elephants, the broadened highways, sleek airports and fledging bus rapid transit system will bolster growth, economists say.

The hope is that the gains for South Africa’s reputation will eventually pay off in greater foreign investment and a surge of tourism that helps employ the country’s legions of unskilled workers.

South Africa is now waiting anxiously to see if threatened new attacks on impoverished Zimbabwean and Mozambican immigrants — resented as competitors for jobs by South Africa’s own poor — materialise. If they do, Thabo Leshilo, an editor, warned in ‘The Sunday Times’, “We can say goodbye to the good will and tourism billions expected to flow our way.”

For the past month, South Africa has escaped with nary a major labour strike or incidence of civil unrest among its disgruntled poor and very little crime. But beneath the good fortune lies something more fundamental: The way South Africans of all races live is shaped by fear of crime, and during the World Cup, the government carved out public spaces that it made safe with a highly concentrated police presence that critics say will be impossible to sustain.

In ordinary times here, crime has replaced apartheid — the legally enforced system that ruthlessly separated the races — as the great social divider. Middle-class people, black and white, live behind walls edged with electrified wires and drive to heavily guarded malls with their car doors locked and windows rolled up.

But for the past month, the 44,000 of the country’s 1,90,000 police officers who were deployed to protect tourists also managed to liberate their own countrymen, freeing them to leave their isolated bubbles. Police officials say crime was down, not just for tourists, but more broadly.

In Cape Town, the police were not posted just to the city’s Giorgio Armani of a World Cup stadium — spare, elegant and lovely — but also in free fan parks, along streets where people went club-hopping and on public transportation. That included the train line that ran through the coloured township where Abrahams, the theatre worker, lives and Langa, a black township, before reaching downtown.

Abrahams said the extra contingent of armed policemen roaming through the train cars helped him overcome his fear of muggers there. “I didn’t have to be scared,” he said. “I didn’t have to think about terrible things happening.” Indeed, the World Cup brought a kind of normalcy to South African life.

“There’s a sense this World Cup hasn’t been about the legacy of apartheid, but about how good the roads are, how safe the streets are, how great the game parks are,” said the historian Bill Nasson.

Tourists here at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront did not talk about Nelson Mandela when asked what they thought of the country, but admired the plentitude of fancy shopping malls, smooth superhighways and stylish hotels.

“The thing that overwhelms most is the level of professionalism of native Africans in knowing how to serve a bottle of wine properly,” said Philip Crawford, a designer of luxury homes from Noosa, Australia.

Many South Africans wish the rollicking World Cup ride did not have to end and are already asking whether the nation can muster the same unity and can-do spirit to tackle its far more intractable problems. But for now, they are savouring sweet victory for the country.

“What a show!” exclaimed ‘The Sunday Times’, while ‘The Sunday Independent’ proclaimed it “Africa’s greatest moment.”

(Published 15 July 2010, 16:18 IST)

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