Sitting in a fish and chip shop on the Cape Road, an area in Port Elizabeth that has seen better days, Lindiwe tells me something I do not expect to hear. Outside, the traffic hums and people of all races — typical for this area — shuffle up and down the pavements in the winter sunshine.

My father and I are asking Lindiwe about the World Cup; about whether she thinks it is safe for tourists to come here during the tournament. We are visiting South Africa together — my dad's home until 1976 — for the first time in 16 years. Much has changed in that time, but even so we are not prepared for the answer she gives us. “We are afraid of visitors coming to South Africa during the World Cup,” says Lindiwe. I am stunned. “You are afraid?” I ask. “Why?”

“Because they are looking for girls and children to hijack. Lisa and Liyema's [Lindiwe's children, aged three and five] school is going to close for the whole of the tournament so that parents can keep an eye on their children.”

“But why would they hijack your children?” I say.

“For sex slaves,” says Lindiwe.

I prod at my chips and struggle to understand this concept. Back home in the United Kingdom, all the talk is about how tourists could be in danger, not the other way around. I wonder if it is South African xenophobia — heightened by the anti-foreigner riots of two years ago (in which immigrants from neighbouring African countries were killed) — informing these ideas, as Lindiwe mutters a story about two Nigerian men who raped a young South African girl and then threw her off the top of a building.

Lindiwe is my sister, in the African sense; our families connected by the service that her mother, Evelyn, gave to my grandfather until his death 17 years ago. It is not unusual for white South Africans to have a quasi-familial connection with their black employees — nannies especially — but our situation is rather more unconventional.

Two worlds

The Mfuniselo family lived in my grandfather’s house in Port Elizabeth at a time when, under apartheid, black people were not allowed to live in a white person’s house. But my grandpa Harry never held much truck with that sort of “nonsense”. Even as a child visiting from the U.K., I understood his was a very atypical South African home. At times the whole extended family would come over, and I remember Evelyn’s eldest daughters, Nomsa and Sindiswe, congregating on the front lawn to play volleyball; two huge black women gracefully leaping about as white passersby gawped. When Evelyn passed away, my father took over the responsibility for Lindiwe's welfare, her education and basic living expenses. Now, aged 33, she is a mother herself, with two beautiful young children.

We wake up early and drive to meet Lindiwe at her home in Kwazakhele township. It is only a 10-minute drive from the city centre, but it feels like we are moving between two worlds. Along the freeway, past the impressive new Nelson Mandela Bay World Cup stadium, buildings give way to makeshift shacks and concrete breezeblock homes. Goats feed off rubbish on the side of the road; men sit on street corners with nothing to do; women sell food, stews bubbling over in an iron pot. There are no World Cup motifs in Kwazakhele. The only link to football is the tattered old Wolfson stadium — where black sport was banished to under apartheid. It is ringed by razor wire on which torn plastic bags flutter in the breeze.

We somehow find Lindiwe’s house in Mandleni Street, despite there being no street signs and the houses having no door numbers.

At Shoprite, the lady at the checkout totals up our sacks of samp, rice and beans, and Lindiwe puts her arm around me. “It is a long time since we went shopping together, isn’t it?” As kids we were sent to the shops on errands; I would tag along, a white child looking out of place among all the black shoppers in the supermarket – domestic workers buying provisions for their white employers. “Eh!” they would scream with delight, eyeing me up and down and wondering what I was doing hanging out with a black family.

My father stops in at the liquor store to buy beer for the evening, and Lindiwe and I shudder at the security guard casually pointing his machine gun at passing shoppers. “Robbers are blowing up everything these days,” she says.

At Sindiswe’s house, the women have been cooking all day. Sindiswe’s daughter, Thandeka, has come over to help; her five-year-old son, Lilitha, races around with the rest of the children. An enormous feast awaits. We eat from our laps, and Sindiswe smiles proudly when I say her food is so tasty she should open a cafe for the World Cup.

Sindiswe has a job working three days a week as a domestic help, and I ask whether the tournament has made any difference to her life? “Has the World Cup helped us? No,” she says, shaking her head sadly. “It hasn’t helped. What can I say? I'm watching the World Cup at home, I’m not going to the stadium.”

Overwhelming unemployment

In South Africa, more than a quarter of the population are without jobs, the overwhelming majority of them black. Despite possessing a college diploma in tourism, Lindiwe is one of them. She has been unemployed for years now, unable even to find a job as a shop assistant or waitress. Sindiswe says the system is corrupt.

“If you want a job now, even in Pick‘n’Pay or Shoprite, you must take your CV to the agents. If the agents like you, they will give you the job. If they don't like you, your CV will stay there. But you have to pay the agent 20 per cent – 30 per cent of your takings every month.” Won't the World Cup do anything to help? “We all hoped everything would be better. But as I see it it's not going to be better. It's not possible.”

Still Sindiswe says they “thank God” that the tournament is coming, mostly for the feeling it brings to the country. “On Fridays, everyone is wearing soccer T-shirts, those yellow ones [the South Africa football shirts]. We're all together now. We are one nation. For years and years, we never imagined the World Cup would be here in South Africa. Right now we say thank you God that it is here, so we can see people from other countries coming to us.”

But again, her welcome comes with a caveat. “On the radio, they are always telling us when we see a visitor we mustn’t chase them; we must be friendly and good to them. That way, when they go home, they will say we must come back to South Africa because we were very happy there.”

This is the first time we have stayed after dark in Kwazakhele township – when I was a child, the family were too worried about our safety to let us come here – and I feel giddy at the freedom of staying late, feasting and partying with the family. Siphokazi, Nomsa’s youngest child, was just a baby the last time my father was in South Africa. She was born in 1994, the year of the first free elections: “I’m a freedom child,” she says, tidying up after her niece and nephews, a smile illuminating her face. “We are different to our mothers.”

World Cup on everyone’s lips

I ask her about the World Cup. “Everybody at school is talking about it,” she says. “They say it will bring us disease.” Who will bring disease? “Other people, like from Nigeria.” She laughs. “We are scared of the visitors. People are afraid that their children will be taken as sex slaves. I don’t know if it is true.”

Siphokazi says she wishes she could go to a game, but the tickets are too expensive. I ask her if she thinks tourists will be scared to come. “I don't know. South Africa is a beautiful place, so I don't think they will be scared of coming.”

Suddenly, she remembers the vuvuzelas — the branded trumpets given out by banks and shops to boost World Cup fever. “Do you know how to?” she asks. The kids scream with excitement as we take the long plastic trumpets from their hiding place and run outside to make a racket in the evening air, jumping around like little hooligans.

On the morning of our last day in Port Elizabeth, we phone Lindiwe with a surprise. “I want to try and buy World Cup tickets for the family,” I say. On the other end of the phone, Lindiwe sounds unsure. We meet at her house with the intention of driving to Shoprite for the tickets, but instead we are summoned by Nomsa from her armchair. The head of the household questions us and eventually sighs. “You see we need doors,” she says, motioning to the front and back of the house. “These doors don't lock and it's not safe. I worry about everyone. They can never leave the house, someone always has to stay in. We can watch the World Cup on TV, but we need doors. Am I wrong?”

A few days later in Johannesburg, we meet a white government worker who tells us that South Africa has wasted $5 billion on hosting the World Cup instead of tackling poverty. I shake my head. We hear the same stereotypes about working-class families back in the U.K., I tell him. Then I think of Nomsa choosing doors over World Cup tickets for her family, and I shudder at his ignorance.

We are in Johannesburg to visit my father's family, who live in a leafy, predominantly white middle-class suburb called Waverley. His cousin, my “aunty” Loretta, has invited us for a shabbos dinner, at which her sons and their partners will gather. It is a special evening, with candlelight and Kiddush prayer.

Over dinner I talk excitedly with my cousin Nicky and his girlfriend Nicole. He is a huge football fan and is excited about the World Cup.

As an estate agent, he has already made money from the tournament by renting out an apartment in Sandton, a wealthy Joburg suburb, to a media group for the duration at a fee of 100,000 rand (just under £9,000): a year's rent in any normal period.

Long queues for tickets

Nicky was one of the many South Africans who stood in a queue for hours on the day tickets were released on sale. He bought tickets to the opening match, two group games and a quarter final, but says the notion that tickets are affordable is a sham. “The ticket prices are crazy; they say they've tried to help out the people who can't afford it and made tickets available at 140 rand [about £12.50, more than a day's wages for most people], but I was in that queue and there were no tickets available at that price.”

Nicky is just as angry with the overseas press and their negative portrayal of South Africa. “…One German newspaper said if you come to South Africa, you’ve got to take a bulletproof vest…. It’s annoying because the media can affect things. Africa is awesome. It's the opportunity of a lifetime to come here. You can't be scared; you'll be missing out.”

The next day, over lunch at Loretta's sister Moira's house there is more World Cup talk. Moira's husband, Bernie, has temporarily come out of retirement to set up a World Cup wristband business. He explains how he recruited casual workers to package the wristbands, but his story reveals much about South Africa's problems.

He employed some of these men to work for him but soon discovered that they were stealing. Reliving the memory, his face looks distraught: “I had to call the police. What else could I do?” He shakes his head. “They put the guys in the cells for two nights. It was the worst weekend of my life.”

It took Bernie time to come up with a solution. Instead of simply paying the workers to package the wristbands, he also encouraged them to buy from him at cost price and sell them at a markup in the townships. Before long, the workers were putting in orders for 500 or 1,000 at a time, and making good money. The dynamic of the workplace changed, their confidence went up, and the stealing stopped. I think Bernie is a genius.

Thinking of soccer

After lunch, I speak to Moira's son Andrew, a father of three. When he describes his son Dylan's feelings about the World Cup, his eyes light up. “Dylan is …. beside himself. The kids have been learning about the countries in the World Cup at school; Amber's class [has] been given South Korea to follow, and the kids are just counting down the days. Where are we now, like 35?” Amber interjects, “No, 33.” “Exactly,” says Andrew, “you see, all we are thinking about in South Africa right now is soccer.”

I ask Andrew how the feeling for this tournament compares to the rugby World Cup of 1995, depicted recently by the film Invictus. “The rugby World Cup was very South African,” he says, “but this is so much more international. For me the biggest advantage is the upgrade of the infrastructure, and I don't think it would ever have happened without this World Cup. The improvements to the roads and trains; we've needed that for 15 years and we’ve finally got it now. You know they would never do that for the rugby.

“It’s given us the ability to upgrade so many of our stadiums, which will leave a long legacy. People always say it's a waste to spend so much on stadiums, but we are a country that loves sport – rugby, soccer, cricket – they will all get used. I don't think it's a waste. There's positive and negatives for everything, but I think the positives for this country have been phenomenal. I just hope that these guys come now.”

Unity and legacy

Back in the U.K., my father and I reflect on what we have heard during our trip. Two families living very different lives, from very different cultures, yet both talking about unity and legacy. Both had their reservations and disappointments, yet both also felt a deep pride at the prospect of the world's biggest party coming to South Africa.

Then, by chance, I watch a Channel 4 documentary about child abuse in Port Elizabeth. Familiar images of Kwazakhele and neighbouring townships appear on the screen. The programme says an estimated 12 children a day are raped there, an unexpected legacy of the damage done to the society by apartheid. Suddenly Lindiwe's fears over child kidnapping — justified or not — are placed into context. The stories break my heart as I think of Lindiwe, Sindiswe, Melezwa and Tandeka's beautiful children and worry over their safety. In a quiet moment, I thank God that we bought doors instead of World Cup tickets.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2010

More In: Football | Sport