Into Africa

Negative press stories allowed some World Cup visitors to justify staying in a sanitised environment. But those who did so missed out on the complete experience of South Africa in 2010. Jonathan Wilson reports

Maybe what I did was stupid – certainly the South African woman sitting next to me on the plane home thought so – but, frankly, the air of paranoia was driving me insane. In most cities in the world walking ten minutes out of a football stadium to a bar would be a normal thing to do; not in Johannesburg.

Given all the scare stories, I wouldn’t have dared risk it if I hadn’t been accompanied by Ian Hawkey of the Sunday Times, who lived in Johannesburg in the early 1990s and describes it as “the greatest city in the world”. When I asked a couple of other journalists if they fancied joining us it was as though I’d suggested smearing myself in pigs’ blood and diving into an alligator pool.

But we reached the first bar in Troyeville unmolested and, when it closed, wandered down the street to another recommended by the staff in the first. This time we were the only white people there and the bar was so rough there was a grille over the counter, meaning you had to slide your money underneath and take your beer through the bars. Drawing some attention, we took an early decision to pretend to be Paraguayan so we could talk to each other, perhaps offer warnings, in Spanish without causing offence. But those who spoke to us, once they’d realised we weren’t going to be buying rounds for the whole pub, seemed motivated merely by friendly curiosity. The mood was much the same in a third bar.

It feels ridiculous to relate the story as an adventure (given it essentially boils to: we went out and had a few drinks and nobody attacked or mugged us) yet it felt like an adventure at the time, and certainly was treated as such by other journalists there. I’m uncomfortable even detailing the fact that in the last two bars we were the only whites, for of course that shouldn’t matter any more than if we’d been the only people wearing glasses. Yet in context it was significant, and was clearly the reason other drinkers came to chat even before they knew we were “Paraguayan”.

I’m certainly wary of drawing too many conclusions about South African society from that night, and I don’t want to suggest the dangers are overstated because I got away with it once. A BBC journalist, for instance, neglected to ring ahead to tell his guest house he was on his way back one night, so when he arrived he had to get out of his car to ring the bell; he was robbed on the pavement as he waited. I met countless locals whose relatives had been murdered, or who had themselves had guns held to their heads. The dangers are real enough and I was taking a risk, possibly an unjustified one.

That night, though, felt like lancing a boil, and once my hangover had cleared the next day – altitude makes them worse apparently, so maybe Fabio Capello was right to be wary about letting his players relax with a beer – I felt far more positive about the whole World Cup experience. Sitting cooped up in a guest house solves nothing. I’d seen a lot about the spirit of the tournament on television, read about it on the FIFA website, heard about it from journalists who’d been bussed into townships. Rather more informatively, I listened to those who went independently and reported back on the frustrations that so little of the revenue the tournament supposedly brought in is filtering its way down to the poorest sections of society, but I hadn’t actually felt it myself.

It’s very easy in South Africa (to be honest, at World Cups in general) for journalists to stay in the bubble of hotel-training ground-stadium-restaurant-hotel (which in Rustenburg, where I spent the bulk of the tournament, pretty much meant in the big soulless mall just to the north of town). Getting out into those bars in Troyeville was an opportunity to break that. It was clear how big an impact the World Cup had had and, it occurred to me afterwards, probably explained why people had been quite as hospitable as they were.

Nobody I spoke to had actually been to any games – too expensive and too hard to get tickets were the general complaints, which, given how many claimed to go and watch Chiefs or Pirates on a regular basis, is a disappointment – but a majority seemed to have watched most games on television, and everybody had opinions.

There was disappointment about Brazil, bafflement about England and France, amusement about Nigeria’s failure (Nigerians really aren’t popular in South Africa – in a Spar near Sun City I saw a poster warning that women shouldn’t go to the mall alone during the World Cup because there’d be more Nigerians than usual about), frustration about Ivory Coast, joy about Ghana and a wholly exaggerated sense of fury about Bafana Bafana.

Some seemed to think it was a disgrace that they hadn’t romped to at least the semi-final, and suggested Carlos Alberto Parreira was to blame for his defensiveness. Some, bizarrely, seemed to think they’d been robbed by the sending-off of goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune for chopping down Luis Suárez. Only Daniel, who became my first-choice taxi driver in the final week or so in Johannesburg, seemed to have any sense of realism. “We weren’t at the last World Cup,” he said. “We weren’t even at the Cup of Nations. But we played OK and we beat France. We didn’t embarrass ourselves. So we couldn’t ask for any more. Our fault was letting in those two late goals against Uruguay; once we were beaten we gave up and that put us out on goal difference. We have to learn to fight all the way.” His sense of perspective, though, was rare. Perhaps all nations are blinded as to the true worth of their side.

It’s not the only thing South Africans are blind to. Drive along the main street of Rustenburg and you pass four shops selling tombstones (“Tombstone Palace: for all your budget funeral needs” proclaims the green neon sign at the front of one). The temptation was to smile and, as you headed on through dusty farmland to England’s training base, see an intro waiting to be written. Then I asked why the trade was so lucrative: it’s because the HIV rate is at a little under 30 per cent. Being HIV positive, I was told by a charity worker, is so stigmatised that many would rather not even have the test which, in a promiscuous society, keeps the infection rate horrifyingly high.

The local landmark I did end up using as an intro came a little nearer the England camp, which was actually just outside Rustenburg, near Phokeng, which meant that as you approached from the Rustenburg side, you passed a large sign pointing to the Phokeng Trauma Centre. You can probably see where that ended up going.

Rather happier were the Ghanaians, who moved from Pretoria as the tournament began to base themselves in Mogwase near Sun City. The contrast between England’s overprotected tetchiness and their openness could hardly have been sharper. In the first week, Richard Kingson got talking to three British journalists as he lay by the side of the pitch nursing a knock to his ankle. He was worried, he said, about his wedding shoes, which were supposed to have been delivered from Italy to his home near Wigan, but had apparently been left with a neighbour. As the conversation continued, it turned out that one of the journalists had a brother who not only lived in the same village, but next door to the goalkeeper. A quick phone call later and the hunt for the shoes was on.

The Black Stars ended up, by virtue of playing in the evening after Brazil had gone out in the afternoon, being the last team in the competition South African fans really cared about. Their progress to the quarter-final and the unfortunate nature of their exit, as Dominic Adiyiah’s goalbound shot was handled on the line by Suárez and Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty, prompted much talk about the progress made by African football. But, while this Ghana side has promise, it probably didn’t reach the level of football of either Cameroon in 1990 or Senegal in 2002, Africa’s two previous quarter-finalists.

The sense was that the first African World Cup demanded an African fairy story and Ghana, having progressed after Serbia were not awarded a clear last-minute penalty against Australia, went far enough to providing it to justify the usual cant about Africa being on the verge of a breakthrough. Had Serbia been awarded and scored that penalty, though, Africa would have had no sides through the group stage for the first time since 1982. African players may now be common in the Champions League, but the truth is we are no nearer an African winner of the World Cup than we were 20 years ago.

That notwithstanding, the first African World Cup felt like a success. There were problems with the ticketing and the fact that many games, even seemingly attractive fixtures in the knockout stages such as England v Germany, were well below capacity was hard to fathom. But the widespread chaos many predicted never materialised and crime was nowhere near as rampant as many had expected. The football was decent and, although there were no signature games and the goals per game ratio was down to 1990 levels, this was probably as good a tournament as any since 1998.

The biggest problems, in fact, were not South Africa’s at all. The practice of hosting each group in two nearby cities was ended in 1998 for fear of fans setting up base camps for several weeks in a city square. While shifting for each game is just about manageable in countries like France, Japan and Germany with highly developed transport infrastructure, in South Africa it meant some unmanageable journeys (was it really worth a 22-hour day to see England lose to Germany?), culminating in the problems in Durban for the semi-final.

Many didn’t even attempt these trips, which goes some way to explaining the empty seats. Thankfully FIFA has already said it will discontinue the practice in Brazil. The other downer was the climate of fear, but whether that is the result of violence or of overreaction to violence is harder to say.

From WSC 282 August 2010