I’m just back from my World Cup safari to South Africa with a lot of memories from the trip of a lifetime. If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen a whole bunch of photos, observations and witticisms from the past three weeks. Thanks to all of you for your kind comments – glad you enjoyed the trip too, at least vicariously!
They say that once experienced, South Africa and the continent never leaves you. As an outsider visiting the place for just a few weeks I am clearly no expert on this vast and complicated land. But for what it’s worth here are some random thoughts on what I experienced in this inspiring yet disturbing country …
- The people are amazing. Wherever we went, we were guaranteed a warm welcome from people of all races and backgrounds. Call it the World Cup effect but South Africans seemed genuinely thrilled that the world had come to them, they couldn’t do enough to make us feel welcome and show off their country.
- South Africa is safer than you think … but more dangerous. Despite all the pre-event headlines about violent crime, we never felt threatened. Generally, if you take the precautions you’d take in any big city, you are fine. But violence is never far away in South Africa – the night before we left our guesthouse in Sandton, a smart suburb of Johannesburg, thieves smashed the security system in an unsuccessful attempt to get in. Having heard the harrowing tale of how our landlady, a tough old bird in her 70s, had been beaten up and robbed at gunpoint six months ago, we were glad we didn’t know anything about it until the following day.
- Are we in Florida? I don’t know why I was surprised that South African cities are as modern and sophisticated as they are. The superb highways, shopping malls and entertainment complexes are more Orlando, Florida than Orlando, Soweto.
- History only happened here yesterday. With all the modern trappings, it’s easy to forget that it is only 16 years since apartheid was dismantled and free elections were first held. The legacy of apartheid – poor education, appalling housing and a hornet’s nest of social issues – will take generations to solve but the fact that the country didn’t explode into civil war remains a miracle and an extraordinary testament to the South African people. Among my lasting memories were trips I made to the Apartheid Museum in Gold Reef City, and the Hector Pietersen Museum and Nelson Mandela’s House in Soweto, all of which told their painful stories unflinchingly and comprehensively without rancour, recrimination or political moralising. Simply spelling out what it was like and what happened is enough and maybe that’s part of the healing process: the past is inescapable and undeniable. Putting apartheid where it belongs – in a museum – ensures that it is not forgotten and at the same time validates the experience and struggle that in some way enables a line to be drawn under it from which people can move on. Do many white South Africans come here? I asked Jay, our guide at Mandela’s house. “A few,” she said sadly. “Not as many as they should do.”
- Soweto isn’t what you think. First of all it’s much bigger – a sprawling 49 districts that are home to more than a million people. Yes, it contains the typical scenes of grinding poverty that will break your heart but there are also smart suburban areas that wouldn’t look out of place in a North American sub-division and there are numerous pockets of cultural and entrepreneurial creativity that left you feeling with as much hope as despair that slowly but surely, things are improving. We saw all this thanks to Bongani Nhdlovu, an informative and engaging guide with a local tour company, Soweto Tours, which ploughs part of its profits into children’s projects in the township. Both are highly recommended.
- Racism is alive and well. “Nelson Mandela?” spat our Johannesburg landlady. “A bloody murderer.” Not everyone apparently reveres Mandiba or embraces the Rainbow Nation. A white South African unashamedly from “the old school”, she says crime and violence have skyrocketed since the end of apartheid and that “blacks now think they can do what they want”. Her guesthouse, like most other buildings in Johannesburg, is surrounded by a 12-foot wall topped with an electric fence or razor wire. She carries a panic button on her keyring to summon a security company at a moment’s notice. Like many, she sees a South Africa where whites are increasingly marginalized and fears for the future when Mandela dies. These, though, are the same unfulfilled fears expressed when Mandela was freed and the first free elections took place. While we couldn’t fault her hospitality and helpfulness towards us, coming from Bermuda we found her racism shocking – she expressed her “disgust” when her granddaughter turned up one day with a black friend – we had to accept that people of her generation and experience are never going to change.
- It really does get cold. I only threw in gloves, woolly hat and ski jacket at the last minute but boy, I was glad I did. In and around Joburg, the higher altitude made for warm sunny days but once the sun went down, temperatures plummeted towards freezing really fast. One day some of the teams couldn’t train because of frozen pitches!
- Cape Town is one of the best cities on earth. “You’ll like Cape Town,” our Joburg landlady said as we left, “it’s run by white people.” Well, not strictly. It’s the only province run by the Democratic Alliance as opposed to the ANC but there was a much different vibe to Cape Town that seems to be embraced by Cape Tonians of all races. After the paranoia of Joburg where I don’t think I ever saw a white person walking the streets after dark, it was a relief to be able to relax and walk around a city where not every building was protected like a fortress. The setting of the city – overshadowed by the magnificent Table Mountain – is spectacular, as is the natural beauty of the western cape with its picturesque bays and sweeping winelands. Add to that magnificent food, music and shopping, it easy to see why the city regularly ranks among the best cities in the world. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
- The food is fantastic. There are plenty of world class restaurants in South Africa and with the exchange rate around R7.5 to the dollar, they are extremely good value. Moyo (Joburg and Cape Town), Karibu and The Africa Cafe (both in Cape Town) gave us a wonderful taste of food from all over Africa but we also enjoyed some terrific local and street food – Kalky’s in Kalk Bay is a fabulous harbourside fish diner, and I quickly developed a taste for bibotje, ostrich, springbok, biltong, bunny chow, borewors, snoek and malva pudding … to name just a few!
- Kulala is the coolest airline in the world. When you see a plane parked on the runway adorned with huge letters saying “This Way Up”, you know you’re in for a fun ride. From take off to touchdown – “Well that was a great landing,” said the pilot as we landed in Cape Town – it was one long comedy act. Sample: “Please turn off phones, MP3 players and all vibrating devices … ladies, please.”
- I now know what a makarapa is. The ubiquitous vuvuzelas were not the only new contribution to world soccer fan culture. We also got introduced to makarapas, the plastic construction helmets sculpted and painted in teams colours. Originally invented in the 1970s to protect fans from flying bottles, they are now an integral part of South African club fans’ attire. Makarapa was the name given to migrant mine workers. As for the vuvuzelas, they weren’t as irritating as I thought and – when played properly – can build a rhythmic wave of atmosphere. But what they often drowned out was the singing that is such a part of World Cup games. During a lull in the Slovakia-Italy game, a group of local schoolkids jumped up and down in unison joyously singing their heads off. Wish there had been more of that.
- The stadiums were superb. Concerns that South Africa wouldn’t be up to the job proved ill-founded. Soccer City in Joburg and Green Point in Cape Town were wonderful modern stadiums fit to grace any World Cup. The public transportation infrastructure was obviously lacking but we survived – cabbies were plentiful, unfailingly friendly, reliable and cheap.
- What will be the legacy of the World Cup? It’s hard to equate the millions spent on something like Soccer City with the shacks of Soweto barely a free kick or two away. And yet we heard no resentment from people, only pride that the World Cup had come to THEIR country and that South Africa had been able to put the event on. I have never been to a World Cup where the event has been so passionately embraced by the people of a country. And that maybe is the legacy that the World Cup will leave: a national pride and confidence that it can continue to defy the odds and solve seemingly insurmountable problems. There’s another less obvious legacy too. All over South Africa, players from Bafana Bafana adorned huge billboards, TV and print advertising – they were inescapable. When you remember that soccer in Africa is a predominately black sport and that for many years in South Africa it was one of the few public places where blacks could gather safely in any number, hosting the World Cup was a massive affirmation on so many levels that I don’t think can be underestimated.
- We are all Africans. South Africa is home to the Cradle of Mankind, a world heritage site in Gauteng province. We didn’t have time to visit but perhaps we didn’t need to. “Where are you all from?” Bongani asked our multi-national group at the start of our Soweto tour. Australia, Bermuda, US, Mongolia, came the replies. “Welcome home,” grinned Bongani.