Welcome to South Africa

by Max Siollun

History and politics is my usual forte. However I decided to talk about the one thing that is currently on everyone’s lips: THE WORLD CUP! I am in South Africa to see the first ever World Cup on African soil. I hope the tournament will be a great success and will confound the prophets of doom predicting violence, murder and crime.

My first impressions were that South Africans are beaming with pride and are bending over backwards to be helpful and to make the tournament a success. Everyone I encountered so far – from bus drivers, to airport check in staff, to shop assistants, has been ultra helpful. It seems as if everyone in this country is wearing the yellow shirt of Bafana Bafana. There is a carnival atmosphere – especially among the black population who switch effortlessly between English, Xhosa and Zulu as they chat energetically among themselves, with strangers, and foreigners. It seems that South Africans love to dance. I walked into a Woolworths store and one of the cashiers was standing at the entrance singing and dancing – just an hour before kick-off. At the airport, staff were doing the same. South African flags are affixed to the few cars on the eerily quiet streets. It seems that everyone is either at the opening game, or is at home watching it on TV.

South Africa -v- Mexico

The car accident involving Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie, and death of his grand-daughter did not dampen the spirits of South African fans. Even though Madiba could not attend the match, every South African I spoke to was confidently predicting they would beat Mexico. I dared not tell them that I thought they were being overly optimistic. Mexican fans also seemed confident. I encountred several of them triumphantly chanting MEXICO (with a “MEHICO” pronunciation) in Cape Town which temporarily drowned out the South African cheers. South African fans seemed very upset with Benni McCarthy and are glad he will not play. They seem to regard him as a disruptive influence on the team.

I watched this game in a Johannesburg lounge full of South Africans. What struck me is that most of them were young (18-25) middle class blacks, stylishly dressed, brandishing iphones, smartphones, video cameras, and expensive watches. They seemed unaware (or did not care) about the various doomsday commentary that Western media has been writing about their country. Another thing that struck me is that more women than men were there cheering on Bafana Bafana. Oh, and did I mention that many of them were strikingly beautiful?

After pleasantries from FIFA President Sepp Blatter and South African President Jacob Zuma, the game began the way I expected, with Mexico dominating possession and chances. Giovanni dos Santos was very dangerous and should have put Mexico ahead in the first minute. However his shot was blocked at point blank range by Aaron Mokoena. Had they taken their chances in the first half, Mexico would have been 2 or 3 goals up by half time. South Africa barely got into the Mexico half of the field. Mexico’s first half dominance was so complete that the loudest cheer from South African fans I watched the game with came when a Mexican goal was disallowed for offside. The second loudest cheer was for a point blank reflex save by the South African goalkeeper Khune to deny Mexican striker Franco. The fact that Khune was so busy tells you a lot about how the first half went.

South Africa emerge with more urgency in the second half. The lounge I am in absolutely erupts when Siphiwe Tshabalala scores to put South Africa ahead. Everyone is on their feet for two minutes celebrating, screaming, cheering, hugging and clapping. A South African guy high fives me in delight. He must have thought I was South African! The fans’ delirious celebrations are matched by the South African players who stage a carefully choreographed dance on the pitch. When he came on as a sub, Bernard Parker got a huge roar from the fans I was watching with. They seem to love him.

Not all fans were paying close attention. A young South African woman in front of me jumped, cheered and celebrated when Rafael Marquez equalised for Mexico! She seemed to temporarily forget that her team was wearing yellow, not black! 1-1 the final score. A fair result. It would have been harsh on Mexico not to get something from this game. South African fans and commentators are optimistic. They believe their team has a very good chance of getting our of this group. Strange sightings: John Barnes (ex Liverpool and England), the fantastically named Doctor Khumalo (ex South African international) and Stephen Keshi (ex Nigerian Captain and Mali and Togo coach) were guest commentators for South African TV channel Super Sport.

Vuvuzela Overkill

The vuvuzela thing is a fun thing in moderation. We’ve seen drums, trumpets, singing, whistles, cherring, booing and clapping at football stadiums, but the vuvuzela exceeds all of them in noise intensity. As I write my ears are ringing and sore from continual vuvuzela exposure at close quarters. At airports, in the streets, bars, restaurants, indoors, outdoors, everyone is blowing the vuvuzela. The noise is not so deafening when one watches games on TV, but when someone right next to you blows it, the noise is akin to having an elephant roar into your ear.

Also watched the 0-0 bore draw between France and Uruguay. Yawn!

*Side note: Mandela is still worshipped with saintly reverence over here. Even President Zuma referred to Mandela as “our icon” in his pre-match address in the stadium.

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