Tag Archives: Johannesburg

effin’ fifa: a rant.

The World Cup shenanigans will conclude this weekend.

Most thought I was delirious for booking a flight home only a week into the World Cup. In hindsight, I would have loved to stay longer; watching World Cup matches from home, so far removed from the delightful drone of vuvuzelas (other than my own), has been the source of substantial doses of nostalgia. I watch games in Nelspruit, Rustenburg, Polokwane, Pretoria, Cape Town and Jozi and I think, I was there. Damnit, why am I not there?

But really, I’m even more curious as to what it will be like come Monday (or soon thereafter), when the World Cup frenzy—virtually inescapable in the months leading up to the event—dissipates. In preceding months, Zakumi’s image blared from billboards along highways across the country. Countdowns on front page banners of newspapers served as daily reminders: The World Cup was 60 days away; and then it was 16 days away. And before we knew it, it was upon us. Flags of participating nations hung in front of B&Bs. Restaurants and bars redecorated, professing their loyalty to all 32 competing countries at once.

So when the flags disappear, then what?

The not-so-optimistic answer: Shit’s gonna hit the fan. This I heard from co-workers, university students, fellow patrons. Some disagreed, but the majority consented: The World Cup brought with it a euphoria that wouldn’t last, they said. South Africa’s problems hadn’t disappeared. Spin doctors successfully constructed a facade of a new and improved South Africa, but it was just that. A facade. Sure, the airports were prettier. The new Gautrain efficiently shuttled visitors from OR Tambo International Airport to the wealthier, stereotypically suburban suburbs and then onto Pretoria. Cities sported new, freshly paved roads. But there is another South Africa that many visitors never saw, and officials made sure of it. Pathways to and from the stadiums are tunnels of illusion, depicting one South Africa. Visit parts of Soweto, Alexandra, Khayelitsha and Masiphumelele, and you’ll witness another.

Many of the challenges that plagued the pre-World Cup South Africa will continue post-World Cup: a socioeconomically divided population; a crumbling education system; an unemployment rate that’s up to three times that of the U.S.

And if I just sound like I have a chip on my shoulder, John Pilger’s tirade and this CNN article provide a comparatively well-substantiated argument. He cites many of the accounts I heard myself while in South Africa. Like the story of 20,000 Joe Slovo settlement residents who were threatened with eviction because they live near the main motorway between Cape Town and the city’s airport.

For five-and-a-half years, Hellen sold pap, meat and vegetables to passersby. On average, she earned R100 a day, which she collected in old Peter Stuyvesant cigarette containers. Her food stand was located across the street from Soccer City. I interviewed her and several others, who hoped that the World Cup would translate to added revenue, more R10 notes to fill those cigarette containers. No such luck. FIFA rules commanded that she, along with thousands of street vendors throughout South Africa, must pack up and move out. They missed out on the World Cup boom because a line of shops erected using dingy green tarp and scavenged street signs would sully the view of the stadium, taint the illusion.

I hope that the World Cup brings great things for South Africa, that the promise of foreign investment materializes, that Mzansi finds itself on the global radar. I hope this optimism isn’t naïve. I hope that shit doesn’t hit the fan.

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for the memories.

At the risk of sounding maudlin, I’ll admit that this experience has satisfied every cliché anybody’s ever used to describe their life-changing experiences abroad.

In Maputo, we were held hostage at a shebeen. Earlier, a local had enthusiastically pulled a plastic lawn chair up to our table, assuming a position as part of our entourage. But barred by our inability to speak Portuguese and failing in our attempts to communicate in debauched Spanish, we remained largely oblivious of our fellow audience member’s continued presence behind us. Nathan had moved his chair to within two feet of the TV screen, anxious to catch every second of the action as our boys, Bafana Bafana, played Mexico in the opening match of the World Cup. Meanwhile, Bettina and I interrogated our new Cambodian-French-Canadian footie fanatic friend.

But while our eyes remained glued to the soccer players dancing across the screen like mosquitoes abuzz, our clever friend ordered beer after beer, under the false conjecture that it was our treat. When the time came to pay our tab, we obviously refused to pay for our drunken accomplice. So naturally, the employees locked us within the premises, guarding the door like bouncers. A confusing chaos ensued, fueled by communication barriers. The waitress furiously punched keys on her calculator, showing us the tab our friend had racked up. We futilely argued with her until we realized that the amount in contestation was a few measly bucks. We paid up, largely because the urgency of the hunger pangs raging in our stomachs (and the amazing seafood that beckoned) weighed heavier than the matter of principle.

Hours later, our drunken friend reappeared, having recovered from his babalas. Racked with guilt for making us pay for his beer while he basked in drunken stupor—and realizing that he may not have left the most desirable impression on his foreign friends—he offered us a token of reconciliation. “A coke?” he questioned earnestly. We kindly refused but to no avail, and he returned minutes later with two cans. He insisted that we accept his gesture: “Keep it. For the memories.”

In all honestly, I’m not quite sure what fate that Coke confronted, whether it was left atop a deserted table or salvaged by another indulging spectator. But this somewhat bizarre encounter, at the time no more than a pain in the ass, I will now undoubtedly reflect upon fondly.

***

Midway through my time in South Africa, I experienced what I’ve since jokingly dubbed my “quarter-life crisis.” It forced me to revisit and challenge my perceptions about, vaguely speaking, life. My college-bound self thought she had all the answers—or at least 89 percent of them. I thought I’d figured things out, that I knew exactly where that road I’d begun treading would lead.

Now, I know that I’m not even close. I let go of my prematurely conceived notions about who I am and what I want, and it was the best thing I could have done. As Woodstock-esque as it sounds, I danced to the beats of Bob Marley, trails of cigarette smoke encircling me, the inescapable scent working its way into the fibers of my clothing. Kwaito music blared from speakers in Tembisa, as I fumbled to follow synchronized steps in the midst of a cluster of dancers (a young man eventually began whispering the upcoming steps in my ear, saving me from further embarrassment). I walked up and down Seventh Avenue hundreds of times, where I exchanged greetings with so many familiar faces—the patron at the IT café with the blonde hip-length dreadlocks; the street vendor who offered to make me a beaded masterpiece countless times; Sebastian, the waiter with one heck of an afro, at SIX.

I know that I’ll likely continue to surprise myself, as I re-evaluate what I think I know. I know that that’s OK. I know that—barring any further near-death experiences (this is another story that, unfortunately, I don’t think any blog post could do justice)—I’ll have years to figure it out.

And I’ve come back with an paradoxical sense of both clarity and confusion. There is no definitive moment when all these revelations exposed themselves to me, as it often occurs so effusively in the final pages of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Instead, these revelations came gradually. Many times, I’ve surprised even myself, only confirming that one should never say never.

I hoped South Africa would stand to validate what, for the past ten years, I’ve thought I wanted to be. In the end, it did and it didn’t. Now, I relish the fact that there isn’t just one path. I’ve come back inspired by the stories of others’ travels. And if I can muster the guts to do it, why not follow in Nathan’s footsteps, delivering pizzas, saving up for months for the journey of a lifetime, initially landing in Joburg and booking only that first night at a B&B, then backpacking through southern Africa?

I learned to live in the moment, to let go of my inhibitions.  It’s been a whirlwind. And I will treasure it, keep it. For the memories.

darn you, Oprah.

So many of the South Africans I’ve spoken to have voiced some curiosity regarding the perception others have of South Africa. Now, I won’t pretend that I have the authority to speak on behalf of the rest of America, but I can speak from my own experience.

All too often, when I shared my imminent travel plans with others, the typical reaction was, “Oh, South Africa? Where in South Africa? Johannesburg?! Be careful, it’s dangerous.” This was accompanied by a grimace and furrowed eyebrows, a look that betrayed their concern for my future well-being. The warning was then followed by some suggestion about what I should do to ensure my safety during my daring visit. According to my skeptical listeners, I should carry mace, and maybe even a gun, one suggested (and unfortunately I’m not sure if he was joking). Ironically, my self-appointed advisers had never traveled to the country, and few had even ventured to Africa. What they knew about South Africa came from Oprah show episodes (focusing on the ills within South African society) and the occasional PBS special, which they only half-listened to while they multi-tasked.

I wrote off their concern as a bunch of hokum. And after having spent about a month in the country, here’s my great epiphany: South Africa really is not all that different (profound, no?). Yes, there’s poverty—stark poverty. Yes, this country has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, making it one of the most unequal societies in the world. And yes, this phenomenon, where wealth is directly juxtaposed with poverty, breeds crime and violence. I don’t mean to discount any of this. But if we took a closer look at our own society, in America, how difficult would it be to find people living in similar states of poverty, or pockets within cities where crime rates are equally high?

Many South Africans refute the perception of South Africa that’s portrayed around the world. Yes, there are differences between the U.S. and South Africa: Most South Africans proficiently speak an average of five different languages. Jazz and blues are to South Africa what pop music is to the U.S. And people, on the whole, are much better dancers. HIV/AIDS and race are real issues that continue to plague the country, but doesn’t the U.S. have its own set of issues to contend with (i.e. Sarah Palin) (kidding)?

The aforementioned race issue, stated simplistically, is complex.  There is a dichotomy in regards to race in the country, and it largely depends on where you are. In cosmopolitan Johannesburg, I’ve seen whites, blacks and coloureds intermingling at restaurants, in coffee shops—perhaps to a greater extent than I’ve seen in the U.S. (although this may be just because I’m more conscious of it).  However, on Day Two of my internship at City Press I accompanied fellow reporters to Ventersdorp, the scene of Eugene Terre’blanche’s death. The white supremacist was allegedly murdered by two of his black farm workers, and we joined the battalion of reporters who flocked to the scene of the crime in the days after his death.

In Ventersdorp, men loitered on street corners, with nowhere to go, no job to report to due to soaring unemployment rates. Cars slowly paced up and down sandy roads. I sat inside the local Wimpy, where blacks and whites sat at adjacent tables. But never once did I witness any interaction between them—in the restaurant, at the petrol station or on the streets. This was entirely contradictory to what I’d seen in Joburg, but some say this is characteristic of many small towns in South Africa. And as I reflect on the trip to Ventersdorp, I most readily recall the silence, the lack of the cacophonous sounds that bring a town to life. The racial tensions were palpable, in a way I’d never experienced before.

Still, there’s a side of South Africa that doesn’t make headlines. It hasn’t been exoticized or glamourized, essentially because there’s virtually nothing different about it. By no means do I intend to discount the importance of the issues that do make headlines: corruption within government, shady officials, the rates of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. But there’s the side of South Africa that doesn’t make headlines in the U.S., simply because there’s nothing utterly unfamiliar about it.