JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – They would never finish the stadiums on time. Transportation would be a fiasco. Tourists who weren’t shot, stabbed or killed in car smashes would get food poisoning. And if that didn’t ruin the soccer World Cup, the bad South African service would.
It wasn’t just the British tabloids who predicted South Africa could never pull off the World Cup tournament successfully. There were plenty of skeptics in South Africa.
But the tournament that ends with the Netherlands-Spain final today buries the stereotype of South Africa as a violent place where nothing really works, incapable of staging a global showcase.
Yes, there were transport mix-ups and armed robberies, some of them vicious. And the cost of staging the event blew out from an estimated $329 million to somewhere between $4 billion and $5.5 billion.
But the faults weren’t enough to overshadow the event’s vibrancy and enthusiasm, and its ebullient African style. Mega-events like the World Cup and Olympics are often defined by the people who host them. If the first World Cup on African soil wasn’t perfect, at least it was real.
“We have had an image makeover for South Africa and the continent of Africa. We have succeeded in rebranding and repositioning this country,” said local organizing committee boss Danny Jordaan.
“What we cannot quantify is the generation of pride in South Africa as a nation, the unity, the sharing of a single vision. We have seen black and white side by side at fan parks and stadiums, when for many years these people were prohibited by law to sit together,” he said, referring to South Africa’s apartheid era, when the races were classified and segregated.
South Africa’s World Cup was a four-week people’s festival – which saw the normally insular car-addicted middle classes abandoning their vehicles, walking, taking buses and trains, celebrating in the streets at night or visiting Soweto township for the first time in their lives.
Since Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation dream began to fade with the rise of corruption and persistent inequality, South Africa has become a navel-gazing, insecure nation.
The country fretted that violence would affirm South Africa’s image as a killing field. Would President Jacob Zuma, with his children born out of wedlock and sex scandals, embarrass the country? Would logistical problems and transport chaos reaffirm stereotypes of Africa as the hopeless continent?
From the outset, when South Africa was chosen in 2004 to host the event, the government has burdened the World Cup with heavy expectations.
“We want to ensure that one day, historians will reflect upon the 2010 World Cup as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely and turned the tide of centuries of poverty and conflict,” then-South Africa President Thabo Mbeki said at the time.
But South Africa surprised even itself with the tournament’s success. Zuma played the jovial host and people started blowing vuvuzela horns from Johannesburg to Amsterdam. The country’s six stunning new or rebuilt stadiums, like the calabash-shaped Soccer City in Soweto, flashed around the globe on TwitPic, and no one worried about criticisms they’d be white elephants afterward.
“We won most of all because we could finally say ‘we.’ Something shifted during the World Cup: With a team to support and half a million guests to take care of, we found ourselves all on the same side,” wrote analyst and author Mark Gevisser. “The festive buzz of a million vuvuzelas came to override the habitual sounds of urban anxiety: the gunfire; the helicopters chasing stolen cars; the aggressive minibus taxis.
“South Africans were waving flags, and supporting their team out of a sense of joy and belonging, rather than the deficit-driven pride that has fueled both Afrikaner and African nationalism for so long.”
The country was suddenly brimming with confidence: “Nobody could have done it better than us,” said an editorial in the Star newspaper, as South Africa planned to stage a bid for the Olympics.
Olympics chief Jacques Rogge praised South Africa’s World Cup on Saturday after a meeting with Zuma: “It is something that will be remembered for a very long time. It will make all Africa proud, and the entire sports movement is very happy about that,” he said.
Boniswa Seakemela, who runs the Mandela Family Restaurant, on Vilakazi Street, Soweto, a popular tourist area, was proud of her country for pulling off an event, despite the skeptics.
“People say ‘Your country is beautiful, we want to come back and explore more.’ I think the effects are going to last a very long time,” she said. “We saw how beautiful it was. People could walk around just feeling totally free in Soweto, even at night. There was no handbag snatching, no rapes, no funny things like that.”
No one denies there were some problems: Ticket sales were lower than expected at first and prices had to be slashed to get South Africans to buy them. Hundreds of fans missed the Durban semifinal between Spain and Germany because VIP planes clogged Durban’s new airport.
The South African government saturated the country with more than 40,000 extra police over the tournament. Special courts, dedicated solely to FIFA matters, operated late into the night, meting out swift – and often harsh – sentences (in contrast to South Africa’s usually glacial pace of justice). A cell phone thief was jailed for five years and hotel staffers were jailed for three years for stealing.
The deterrent worked. South African private security firm ADT estimated the crime rate had fallen by 60 percent to 70 percent around Johannesburg.
The steep cost of keeping police and courts operating at extended hours means the anti-crime operation cannot be sustained in the long term.
And the fact remains that all of the half million visitors who were expected to arrive in the country specifically because of the World Cup didn’t materialize, largely due to security fears and high prices. The number of visitors during the tournament was around a million, 200,000 higher than the same period last year.
But those who came fell in love with Cape Town, and gazed into Mandela’s old prison cell on Robben Island. They queued for soccer transport and sat in restaurants while waiters took their time or made mistakes.
“The most positive thing is the people. They’re so welcoming. The service is not what we are used to. In a restaurant they make mistakes, they’re not quick. But their effort was there. My stay here has been great,” said American Young-Sook Lee, describing a country so eager to impress that people would give up the last muffin in their favorite bakery to a total stranger – just to make a foreign tourist happy.
Many South Africans wonder whether the cup could be a force for permanent change. Might it influence the way South Africans, rich and poor, of all races, relate to one another?
And could the country sustain the joyful pan-Africanism that saw South Africans painting themselves in Ghana’s colors after their own team was eliminated?
The support for Ghana so far hasn’t translated into tolerance of Zimbabwean immigrants in shantytowns, where many accuse them of taking South African jobs. With rumors of a xenophobic pogrom planned after the World Cup, Zimbabweans and Congolese have been packing their bags and fleeing townships.
Such difficult issues remain, yet the remarkable thing about what happened during the World Cup, wrote the analyst, Gevisser, was that white and black South Africans began talking to each other “like normal people” in service stations and supermarkets.
“The main reason we were talking to each other as never before was because we were occupying public space and using public transport in a way that city dwellers do the world over, but that is utterly foreign to South Africa due to apartheid planning and the fear of crime.”
The question left for South Africans at the end was how to make it all last.
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