Nervous wait for World Cup in rainbow republic
“Please tell everyone South Africa’s not as dangerous as they think.” That’s how most of my conversations have started over the past 10 days as I travelled around the country that will host next month’s World Cup.
It’s just 16 years since Nelson Mandela’s election as president signalled the end of the apartheid era, and like a teenager going to her deb ball, South Africa is nervous about being the centre of attention.
Worried that the roads won’t be ready. Worried that the national team, known to all as Bfana Bfana, won’t perform well. But most of all, worried that the country’s reputation for violence will be the ever-lasting memory of this World Cup.
“Ja, there’s crime here, but every country has its places you shouldn’t go”, Joe, the general manager of a game reserve tells me, echoing the thoughts of just about everyone I’ve spoken to.
I want to point out that may be true, but that South Africa seems to have a lot more of those places than, say Germany, the last host of the World Cup, let alone South Korea and Japan who shared the 2002 event.
But the locals here are so anxious for positive reinforcement, it would seem churlish to disagree. And everywhere I went – which, to be perfectly honest was mainly five-star hotels and resorts – I felt COMPLETELY safe.
A recent study showed most of the country’s crime was committed against other South Africans, rather than tourists, but the stats still put the country near the top of the chart in most violent crime categories.
So, where Germany greeted visiting fans in 2006 with open, confident arms, and South Korea and Japan used the 2002 World Cup as a chance to show off their arrival as vibrant, modern societies, South Africa is a bundle of nerves.
That anxiousness runs through this nation, which despite having the institutions of an old-world country, it seems unsure of how it sees itself, let alone how it wants the world to see it.
The political scene reminds me of my ill-considered time in student politics. One of the rising stars of the main political party – the ANC – Julius Malema, is prone to outrageous statements, such as supporting the racist policies of Zimbabwe’s dictator/president Robert Mugabe’s.
But rather than disowning him, the ANC charged him with technical offences, then dropped all but one due to a legality.
It’s an immature response to ridiculously ill-considered thoughts, signs of a party worried more about process than the repercussions his views might have on the country’s citizens, allies and trading partners.
In the parts of South Africa where most Westerners travel, the colour divide is still strong. Black people carry your bags, while white people manage them carrying your bags.
But while there seems little tension in day-to-day affairs, the race issue seems to weigh on the minds of people at all stratum of society..
“If (Malema) had the chance, he’d line us (white people) up and ch-ch-ch …”, said Ilana, a lodge manager, imitating a machine gun.
I ask a white guy who was born and bred in Durban how it’s changed, he says it was once South Africa’s great city, but now it’s slipped behind Cape Town and Johannesburg.
When I ask why he thinks that is, he replies simply, “It’s been Africanised”, a phrase that says everything and nothing all at once.
Even the political hierarchy appear to struggle with the issue. When the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, is introduced at the continent’s biggest tourism conference, Indaba, the (white) tourism minister tells a strange anecdote.
He tells that proverb about when you’re being chased by a lion, you don’t have to be faster than the animal, just faster than the people with you.
Only, he tells it as though it’s a true story from Zuma’s rural childhood. I’m left wondering what that’s meant to tell the assembled international press. That Zuma is ruthless? That he had a charmingly simple upbringing among lions, like we’d expect from an “African”? That he’s a really fast runner?
It was stranger in person than I can describe.
It smacks of two cultures trying to mingle but not having the vocabulary to do so.
Zuma makes no mention of the anecdote when he begins his (achingly dull) speech. He may be all of the above – and we know for sure he’s a lothario, as he’s got at least five wives and 20 kids - but South African’s president is no orator, and does not strike you as the man to inspire overwhelming confidence in his country.
At Indaba – held over five days in Duban each year – press conferences were dominated by issues surrounding the World Cup, and the prevailing mood among tour operators was anger.
They felt betrayed by FIFA and their government, who had promised them a windfall when hundreds of thousands of tourists filled hotel rooms, game parks and resorts.
But a combination of mismanagement – FIFA’s official accommodation service just flooded the market with tens of thousands of hotel rooms – and the global economic downturn has left many places less than half full in June. An accommodation buyer told me that previously big-spending companies, such as Heineken and ING, were not bringing clients this year as they needed to show belt tightening to their shareholders.
“What’s going to happen after July 11?” asked one local journalist at a press conference with the two guys who’ve run the World Cup organising committee.
The officials struggled to answer the question – reaching for a tokenistic story about a woman from a township who was now a licensed crane driver – but that’s because the benefits of hosting a big event tend to be as much emotional as financial.
South Africa has sunk billions into infrastructure for the World Cup, but beyond improved roads and shiny new stadiums, it’s hard for the people of the street to imagine what the benefits will be.
They hope it will show off their country as a great – and safe – place to travel and do business, bringing in plenty of foreign currency in the future.
Which I guess is why everyone’s mind – and I mean every, single local I spoke to – is occupied with the prospect of violence against foreigners ruining their day in the sun.
We can only hope their worst dreams do not come true. As it continues to cope with its dark past, this is its chance to look the world confidently in the eye.
Follow Finn on twitter at www.twitter.com/finn_bradshaw
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…