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South Africa the nation is the big World Cup winner

Being a global showcase unites the nation, which manages to quell violence, overcome racial tension and present an ebullient African spirit for all the world to see.

July 10, 2010|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — They would never finish the stadiums on time. Transportation would be a fiasco. Tourists who weren't shot, stabbed or killed in car crashes would get food poisoning. And if that didn't ruin the soccer World Cup, the bad South African service would.

It wasn't just the British tabloids that predicted South Africa could never pull off the World Cup tournament successfully. There were plenty of skeptics in South Africa.

But the tournament that ends with the Netherlands-Spain final Sunday buries the stereotype of South Africa as a violent place where nothing really works, incapable of staging a global showcase.

Yes, there were transport mix-ups and armed robberies, some of them vicious. And the cost of staging the event blew out from an estimated $329 million to somewhere between $4 billion and $5.5 billion.

But the faults weren't enough to overshadow the event's vibrancy and enthusiasm, and its ebullient African style. Mega-events like the World Cup and Olympics are often defined by the people who host them. If the first World Cup on African soil wasn't perfect, at least it was real.

"We have had an image makeover for South Africa and the continent of Africa. We have succeeded in re-branding and repositioning this country," said local organizing committee boss Danny Jordaan.

"What we cannot quantify is the generation of pride in South Africa as a nation, the unity, the sharing of a single vision. We have seen black and white side by side at fan parks and stadiums, when for many years these people were prohibited by law to sit together," he said, referring to South Africa's apartheid era, when the races were classified and segregated.

South Africa's World Cup was a four-week people's festival — which saw the normally insular car-addicted middle classes abandoning their vehicles, walking, taking buses and trains, celebrating in the streets at night or visiting Soweto township for the first time in their lives.

Since Nelson Mandela's Rainbow Nation dream began to fade with the rise of corruption and persistent inequality, South Africa has become a navel-gazing, insecure nation.

The country fretted that violence would affirm South Africa's image as a killing field. Would President Jacob Zuma, with his children born out of wedlock and sex scandals, embarrass the country? Would logistical problems and transport chaos reaffirm stereotypes of Africa as the hopeless continent?

From the outset, when South Africa was chosen in 2004 to host the event, the government has burdened the World Cup with heavy expectations.

"We want to ensure that one day, historians will reflect upon the 2010 World Cup as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely and turned the tide of centuries of poverty and conflict," then-South African President Thabo Mbeki said at the time.

But South Africa surprised even itself with the tournament's success. Zuma played the jovial host and people started blowing vuvuzela horns from Johannesburg to Amsterdam. The country's six stunning new or rebuilt stadiums, like the calabash-shaped Soccer City in Soweto, flashed around the globe on Twitpic, and no one worried about criticisms they'd be white elephants afterward.

"We won most of all because we could finally say 'we.' 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," wrote analyst and author Mark Gevisser. "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.

"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 fueled both Afrikaner and African nationalism for so long."

The country was suddenly brimming with confidence. "Nobody could have done it better than us," said an editorial in the Star newspaper, as South Africa planned to stage a bid for the Olympics.

Olympics chief Jacques Rogge praised South Africa's World Cup on Saturday after a meeting with Zuma. "It is something that will be remembered for a very long time. It will make all Africa proud, and the entire sports movement is very happy about that," he said.

Boniswa Seakemela, who runs the Mandela Family Restaurant on Vilakazi Street, Soweto, a popular tourist area, was proud of her country for pulling off an event, despite the skeptics.

"People say, 'Your country is beautiful, we want to come back and explore more.' I think the effects are going to last a very long time," she said. "We saw how beautiful it was. People could walk around just feeling totally free in Soweto, even at night. There was no handbag snatching, no rapes."

Vilakazi Street snack bar owner Thabang Qalane, 37, said the reason was the police trawling the area and the dedicated courts for the tournament, working overtime and delivering justice swiftly.

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