Soccer: The good, the bad and the football

By Jane Phare, Michael Brown

Choking dust rises as players from the Tswelopele football team chase an old ball around on the dry, bumpy football pitch.

Scores of children and teenagers mill around on the edge of the pitch (there are no markings) while others kick anything that might roll. It's a common scene in Daveyton, a township north of Johannesburg which, like many of South Africa's townships, is home to the middle class and millionaires, but mostly the poor.

As players and kids scuff Africa's dusty earth with their sneakers, few give thought to the meaning of the team's name. Tswelopele means "moving forward" in Twsana - one of South Africa's 11 official languages -a name dripping with symbolism as the World Cup kicks off.

World Cup fever has undoubtedly fuelled a mood of optimism among South Africans and certainly the country can point to some impressive improvements: 10 world class stadiums - some engineering wonders among them - new motorways, transport networks and accommodation that have been built or developed. Public areas and beaches have been cleaned up amid a flurry of beautification on the streets.

The stadiums alone cost the South African Government R17 billion ($3.23 billion), up from the original R8 billion ($1.52 billion) estimate. World footballing body Fifa has also invested US$22 billion ($32.1 billion) into the World Cup.

Whole slum neighbourhoods were demolished and new tin-shed towns built elsewhere. The massive building programme created jobs, injecting cash and optimism into the country in equal quantities.

But behind the giant billboards fronted by footballing greats such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, loom massive problems. Crime has reached epidemic proportions, unemployment is around 40 per cent (and as high as 60 per cent in some areas), HIV affects everyone in some way and life, for the majority of the nation's underclass, is a constant struggle. The gap between the very rich and poor is vast.

While the problems are obvious, and at times overwhelming, a buoyant mood of hope has gripped the country. It might be the footie talking, it might be locals still benefiting from a trickle-down economy fuelled by the World Cup, but many South Africans believe their country is making progress.

So far, the Kiwi All Whites have viewed the country mostly through a bus window, from training grounds or their hotel - the five-star Serengeti Golf and Wildlife Estate outside Johannesburg -a world away from the shanty towns.

The cocooning of the team is what midfielder Simon Elliott calls a "little Fifa bubble".

But, Elliott says, even through the bus window the disparity between "the haves and have nots" is obvious. And so is the optimism.

"When we go to training, people come out to the side of the road. They smile, they wave, they look happy and it looks like they don't have a care in the world. So there's a real joy in some of the people here."

Whatever happens after the stadium lights go out and the visitors go home, locals are making the most of football fever. On every street and dusty patch of ground, someone is kicking round a soccer ball or blowing the plastic vuvuzela trumpets, the raucous sound behind South African football enthusiasm. Most cannot afford a ticket to a World Cup game. Instead they'll watch football history unfold on the big screens in their towns, at local sheeben (pubs) or at home.

While there's still a sense of underlying racism in South Africa - that could take generations to repair-for a month, at least, South Africans will come together in a surge of patriotism.

"Football brought unity to South Africa," says KB, a Sowetan employed as a driver during the World Cup. "It can unite all the people." And there's a sense of hope. If South Africa can host this world class event, what else is it capable of in the future?

But it's the future that has many South Africans worried. One white South African voiced what others secretly fear.

"When it's all over, will the world move on and forget about us?" Seasoned protester John Minto is unlikely to forget about South Africa but there's a note of defeat and disappointment in his voice when he talks about the country he fought for more than 30 years ago, a fight that came to a head during the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand.

Minto was national organiser of Hart (Halt All Racist Tours) and he, like thousands of New Zealanders, went head-to-head with police in riot gear, a furious rugby-going public and a Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, who was equally determined the tour would go ahead.

It was an issue that divided a nation, families and close friends, as those for and against the tour screamed at each other from opposing sides. Protesters unleashed never-before-used tactics to disrupt games - dropping flares and flour bombs on Eden Park from a low flying Cessna and scattering glass on Rugby Park in Hamilton.

Back then Minto was fighting for a free South Africa - free of apartheid, political oppression, but also free of poverty. He has been vocal in his criticism of the country since a two week visit there last year, meeting political activists, community groups and trade unionists.

"Frustration is everywhere," he says. "It has been an enormous disappointment to all of us."

There was a seamless transition from oppression based on race to oppression based on class, Minto says. He predicts that once Nelson Mandela, the father of the "Rainbow Nation"-a phrase coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mandela-dies, the country will "pretty much fall apart". And when that happens, he fears, the ANC will crack down on anyone who criticises the Government, resulting in more violence.

Minto is critical that "enormous wealth" has been shifted to a small minority, leaving the rest of the population in poverty. That outcome, he says, was not what he and other Kiwis fought for.

Progress has been made - 1.5 million cheap houses built, electricity connected to more homes and water supplies improved. But, he says, many cannot afford the rent for the new houses nor do they have the money to pay spiralling electricity costs. Minto says he saw illegal connections to the electricity supply everywhere he went.

And while the Government has handed out money to locals to set up their own businesses, the grants have not been backed up with training or business management. Typically the money will be wasted on a new 4WD car and the resulting work - often done by cheap unskilled immigrant labour-is shoddy, he says.

"I saw new houses, two years old, with their iron frames rotting out."

South African Aucklander Graham Macdonald, who arrived in Zealand 13 years ago with his family, also worries for his country's future.

Macdonald left a comfortable, farming lifestyle for the same reason many left-to make sure his two sons and daughter had a decent future. During a visit to South Africa last year Macdonald, who is fluent in English, Afrikaans and three of the native languages, detected the optimism and excitement fuelled by the World Cup.

But he, like others spoken to, worries about the huge influx of immigrants- legal and illegal - from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Mozambique who see South Africa as a comparatively rich country. With the influx comes increased crime, drugs, intimidation and ghettos of immigrants taking over central Johannesburg and Durban.

Minto is also aware of the effect the increasing immigrant population is having on South Africa's infrastructure. "They're all desperate. It's a matter of degree."

Macdonald worries about a slump in both the mood and the economy after the World Cup is over.

"They can't keep building stadiums and airports."

Former All Black and ex MP Grahame Thorne still visits South Africa regularly, the last time to bury his son Bruce, who died in a car accident in December last year. Thorne's daughter-in-law and grandson still live there.

In his view, South Africa has deteriorated in the 16 years since Mandela was elected as the first black president when the country's 48-year apartheid regime ended.

And he doesn't think South Africa should be hosting the World Cup, not because of security threats but because the billions of dollars spent on stadiums - "white elephants" - and beautification should have been spent on infrastructure and improving everyday life for the population.

"The phone lines go down all the time and the traffic lights don't work because the copper wire has been stolen. The country is falling to bits."

But the young in South Africa shrug off those things in favour of cheerful optimism.

As 14-year-old student Melusi Nkosingimele says, playing on a dirt pitch beyond the walls of the Sinaba Stadium where the All Whites have been training: "South Africa is a good country, you just have to know how to enjoy it."

- Herald on Sunday

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