Tomorrow's final will crown a World Cup that has united a nation. But if South Africa can deliver a global mega-event, why can't it tackle its inequality with the same energy and efficiency?
Sixteen years after experiencing the unforgettable rush of belonging and relief at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994, I felt it again last month: at the Free State stadium in Bloemfontein, watching the South African national team play their last World Cup game on 22 June. We beat France 2-1, and although the victory was insufficient to qualify us into the next round, the consensus across the country following the game was that "we won!"
Why? First, because the Bafana Bafana (Zulu term of endearment meaning "the boys") played at last with optimism, unity, and occasional brilliance; as good a recipe as any for a nascent national identity. Second, because we proved to a sceptical world – and thus ourselves – that we could host a World Cup, a hopeful corrective against the negativity that keeps tourists and investment away. Third, because if our government could deliver the world's biggest mega-sporting event so efficiently, surely it could tackle South Africa's social and economic ills with similar resolve. But "we won" most of all, because we could finally say "we".
Just a few weeks previously, the Afrikaner rightwing leader Eugène Terre'Blanche had been killed by a black employee, and the world was predicting civil war. The African National Congress youth leader, Julius Malema, had defied his party by refusing to stop singing an old liberation song, Kill the Boer, and by calling for the dispossession of white farms. The racial temperature had never been higher.
But 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. 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. Sure, it was holiday-time: daily matches, skiving from work, the cities aglitter with flags and foreigners. Still, for the first time in South Africa's history, it seemed, patriotism was not a political statement. 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 fuelled both Afrikaner and African nationalism for so long.
At the beginning of the South Africa-France match, I had found myself – to my astonishment – singing the South African national anthem. In the spirit of the reconciliatory Mandela era, the anthem is an amalgam of the liberation hymn, Nkosi Sikelel 'iAfrika and the apartheid-era Die Stem. I have not been able to bring myself to sing the latter, but as I watched the Afrikaners around me trying to twist their mouths around Nkosi Sikelel and black South Africans in turn belting out Die Stem with unfettered delight, my stand seemed ridiculously churlish, and so I joined in, exalting along with everyone else those Boer ox-wagons as they conquered the interior.
I was with a group of friends. To our left sat a stolid middle-aged black couple in the Mad Hatter attire that has become part of the South African football fan's kit. In front was a large Indian family which had managed to smuggle samosas past the Fifa branding police; the granny blew her vuvuzela with sincere devotion, and became involved in an hilarious call-and-response with the white teenagers sitting next to her.
Behind us were three younger black men who really knew their football and were enraged at opportunities the Bafana Bafana missed. "Don't worry, man," the older Afrikaner next to them responded at the final whistle, "We did it. We showed the world!" And then he unleashed the war cry which reminded us that we were actually in one of South Africa's most hallowed rugby stadiums, deep in the Afrikaner heartland: "Vrystaaaaaat [Free State]!"
We all laughed as we shuffled our way out in a sea of exhilarated yellow. It wasn't a war, or even a giant self-conscious love-in. It was just a big, happy, national picnic.
After the Bafana were knocked out, it did not take long for South Africans transfer their allegiances to Ghana, the one remaining African team in the competition: "We are all Black Stars now!" trumpeted one Johannesburg newspaper, aptly capturing the national sentiment. A friend who went to the Ghana-US game in Rustenburg reports that every local in this conservative place – white and black alike – was flying the Black Star, and that the Afrikaners in the stadium were cheering for the west Africans as lustily as they would the Springboks.
You would not, of course, have had to look too hard to find some white schadenfreude at the Africans' failure, in general, at the tournament. The South African journalist Johannes Dieterich told me how he had spent a Saturday night in the Karoo town of De Aar in Northern Cape: "The blacks hung out at the tavern Las Vegas At Night and watched soccer passionately, while the coloureds were in the Platform disco and whites at Pringles. There, the game was on several screens, but nobody was watching. One guy told me, 'Bafana Bafana should learn from the Springboks how to play, then maybe I will watch them.'"
And just as there were, of course, several muggings, there was the inevitable racial slurring too. A friend heard a white fan, at Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld stadium, insult an official repeatedly with the word "kaffir" when he was prevented from bringing his own beer into the stadium.
Still, what was most remarkable was the way South Africans talked to each other, not only at the matches or in the fan-zones, but in the daily life that went on around the tournament. An elderly white neighbour almost wept as she told of her conversations with the supermarket staff and petrol pump attendants: "We were talking to each other like normal people," she told me. "This is what I've been waiting for!" Another white woman spoke of how wonderful it was – given that soccer is a black sport in South Africa – that her gardener could now teach her something, rather than the other way round.
A black friend felt that by taking pride in the country having run a successful tournament, white South Africans were finally affirming their black compatriots' ability to govern. "When a white colleague throws his arms around me and says, 'We did it!' he is telling me that blacks can do it after all. What a difference from the attitude I usually get, that I'm an affirmative action case who has to prove herself at every turn," she said.
For most, the pleasure was in the normality of it all. 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.
To get to Soccer City outside Soweto, I took the train from Park Station in downtown Johannesburg, usually a no-go zone for middle-class people, black or white, at night. The carriages were filled with white and black suburbanites who had never been on a train in Johannesburg before, although most of them would have travelled the London underground at some time in their lives. Suddenly, the distance from Johannesburg to Soweto was all of 15 minutes.
Still, an image remained with me from the drive down to Bloemfontein; one which thrilled me in the moment, but would haunt me for the days to come as I lost myself in cosmopolitan Johannesburg. Alongside the highway near the town of Ventersburg, at a rural settlement not yet reached by post-apartheid development, a knot of villagers had clustered: they were dancing and singing and clapping, and with the help of one or two vuvuzelas, cheering on the flag-festooned cavalcade of luxury cars ferrying well-heeled supporters down to the game.
Football in South Africa, as in most places, is a working-class obsession. But the Rainbow Nation melting pot inside the stadiums was, thanks to Fifa, a middle-class one. A few cheap tickets were £10; most cost 10 times that, and could only be acquired if you had access to the internet. So far as I could see, those villagers did not even have electricity; they would thus be following the game around a radio. And so they seemed, to me, to be an analogue for the exclusion and inequality that still plagues South Africa; a country with more than 25% unemployment, with a rampant Aids epidemic, with a severe housing shortage and a stalled land reform programme, with a widening gap between the rich and the poor.
South Africa's leaders are unsurprisingly sanguine at the moment. But in a press conference at Soccer City last week the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, was refreshingly frank: the country's recovery from the recession was "tenuous", and employment in particular would be "slow to recover". This has serious run-on effects, in the way the unemployment problem affects the country's crime epidemic, tax base, and state corruption – because the state is so often the only source of income, either through social welfare grants, or through jobs and contracts.
Towns like Ventersburg have all but collapsed: a recent study found that one in three small towns had no technical or engineering expertise whatsoever. On this very World Cup finals weekend, the state electricity utility has threatened to cut electricity to 11 Free State municipalities, including Bloemfontein, because of non-payment for services. Even wealthy Johannesburg is in financial trouble – not least because of the £300m spent on Soccer City (part of a larger state tag of £3bn).
People, like those Ventersburg villagers, cheer the carnival of power partly because it is a spectacle that pulls them out of the hardship of their daily lives, but largely because they hope they will be noticed, and taken care of. Now that the South African state has proven that it can deliver when the client is Fifa and a global television audience, there is the heightened expectation that it will apply the same purpose to the improvement of the lives of its own citizens.
And so the burning question in South Africa at the moment is this: Why, if the state can build stadiums on time and deliver a World Cup to Fifa, can it not treat its citizens with similar respect and efficiency? Unfortunately, it is far harder to restructure the economy to provide jobs, or to solve the crime crisis, than it is to build a stadium or an airport. The World Cup is a bit like a wartime economy: the skills acquired and the capital invested might indeed boost the economy, but they are not necessarily transferable to a peacetime environment. The extra 40,000 policemen employed in time for the tournament, for example, might have managed the crowds brilliantly, but they will have no effect on South Africa's crime rate if the country's collapsed detective services are not repaired.
Antony Altbeker, the South African author and policy analyst, notes that while the country delivered faultless stadiums, it failed to provide a winning team – despite huge investment in the Bafana Bafana: "The social engineering required to build a good soccer team is very different from the actual engineering required to build a stadium. To build is easy; to change society is way harder."
The writer Palesa Morudu told me that she sees, in the South African pride that "we did it", a troubling anxiety that we can't: "Why are we celebrating that we built stadiums on time? Everywhere in the world stadiums are delivered on time. It's normal. We seem to be seeking vindication, which means that, somewhere, we've internalised that we're not actually good enough."
Indeed, there is a manic-depressive streak to the South African psyche; an after-effect, perhaps, of having once been so favoured after the "Mandela Miracle" transition to democracy. If we are not "the Rainbow Nation" – or the successful hosts of the first African mega-event – then we are another African failed state; Zimbabwe-in-waiting.
At best, the World Cup will be the fillip that pulls South Africa out of this cycle, in the way it attracts investment to the country and focuses the state on effective service delivery; at worst we will look back at is as a carnival high, Christmas in July. Even phlegmatic Germany had a post World Cup hangover; in an environment as emotionally volatile as South Africa, it's inevitable. Still, the power of a grand national pageant is its myth-making potential: whether we were in cars on the way down to Bloemfontein or dancing on the side of the highway, we will tell our children and grandchildren about it and it will become the measure, for years to come, of the Rainbow Nation we imagined we were bringing into being in 1994.
The Rainbow Nation's verdict
'We have come a long way as a country and that makes me proud. I think the World Cup is one of the steps that has made people proud to be South African and that's made us grow as a country and unite as a country, but everyday something is happening in our country that makes us proud to be South African. You cannot just say it's the football that makes people proud, everyday we have Mandela ... there are lots of South African artists and leaders who are making us proud.
Walter Ranyemba (Zimbabwean migrant)
After the World Cup I'm going to move. I don't think I'll be around another year, because people are promising that as soon as the World Cup is finished they are going to beat and burn alive all foreigners, so that's why I'm scared. It's 100% embarrassing that [people are saying they will do such things] just a few weeks after the World Cup ends. What is the meaning of that? I think its an embarrassment, it's a shame to South Africa. The unity will be meaningless.
I was ecstatic because the World Cup is bringing a lot of revenue to the country, a lot of new people. People thought that we were walking around naked and still in the bush, but we're not. They see now that we're all just the same as them. Although we are a third-world country, we are civilised. They said that we would not be able to host the World Cup but we did. We proved to them we could do it.
At the opening match, when we scored the first time, when that goal happened … it was a magnificent goal. People were just going mad. I was hugging people, screaming. People were blowing vuvuzelas and jumping, we were tackling each other. I couldn't speak for a week or so because of the amount I screamed just at that one goal.
Now that it's almost all over I feel a bit sad. I don't know when I'm gong to be able to see this type of thing again. And I like having foreigners around. I like them telling me that my country is a nice country to be in, that we're friendly. And I hope they spread the word, because it's nice to have people come and stay here.
I don't think one can describe the atmosphere. The people were buzzing. The vuvuzelas were screaming. And the fact that all South Africans were united, there were no barriers of colours, black, white, we were South Africans. The people were just enjoying themselves – they were actually dancing in the streets.
For me it was a wow moment, and, being a South African, it was a time for me to really stand up and be a part. I think it gave us a lot of recognition as a country, and I think that South Africans have really outdone themselves and they behaved very well and, yeah, it was the best moment ever. Best. It's a part of my life which I'll never forget. Never. I'm sure everybody can say the same thing. © Guardian News and Media 2010