Tag Archives: “south africa”

It’s another way of life.

Monday, August 1.

It takes 12 minutes for the Gautrain high-speed rail line to connect arrivals at OR Tambo International Airport with Johannesburg’s high-rise business hub, Sandton, and about half that time for my carefully laid plans of recent months to get entirely upended.

I’m not exactly caught off-guard by any of this. I had spent the past week in Accra thinking about the future, wondering if the story line I’d plotted for myself just a few weeks ago was a convincing one. There would be my dramatic return to Joburg – a few frenzied weeks of boozed-up reunions and binge shopping – followed by a quick tour of Cape Town and the vineyards of the Western Cape. A few days later I’d be boarding a one-way flight to Tanzania, primed to indulge my tropical-island fantasy of book-writing and tourist-screwing in Zanzibar. All things considered, you couldn’t ask for a better script.

But I wasn’t entirely sure it was my script. I still remember my arrival in Joburg one night last April, the plane coming through a bank of clouds to reveal the city lit up and glittering like gold ore far below us. It was a beautiful sight for anyone who, like me, had grown up with city blood in his veins. Even before the plane landed, before I came to know and love this African El Dorado, I had a sense that moving to Joburg after three itinerant years in Africa was sort of like a homecoming.

More than a year later, the tropical tumult of Ghana vanishing like the vapor trails left in our wake, my Zanzibar plans already seem hazy. The crisp, dry air of the highveld winter burns my nostrils – a nostalgic smell, memories of late autumn in New York, the leaves like gold and copper coins. Joburg isn’t just a place on a map for me any more, a section of a guidebook to quickly leaf through, a collection of horror stories throwing lurid shadows against the walls of my subconscious. It’s a place where, however tentatively, I began to build a home. Last year, in fits and starts, despite some of the most difficult months of my life, felt like the start of something here. And just as I had the sense, when I boarded the plane to Accra in February, that I was leaving some unfinished business behind in South Africa – personal failures, emotional reckonings – I realize now that what I want more than anything is to pick up where I left off.

Like a sailor stumbling onshore after months at sea, though, it might take some time for me to find my legs. Already the acute sensory thrill of being back is blurred around the edges by a certain wariness – the Joburger’s hyper-vigilance which, while tempered after my first few months in the city last year, has returned as I fuss with the Gold Card that will grant me passage on the Gautrain. The lurid tales of carjackings and armored-car robberies and brazen burglaries are part of this city’s nervous tapestry. I feel it again, already. When I’m approached by a flak-jacketed security guard looking warily over my shoulder, I’m so on-edge after his first words – “I have to advise you, sir” – that I’m completely unprepared for what follows: “that there is no drinking of beverages on the train or the platform.”

No beverages on the platform! Gautrain, bless your heart! As with the gaudy shopping malls and garish residential complexes of the far northern suburbs – places so remote from the rest of city life that they should have their own consulates – the Gautrain is secured by the CCTV cameras and armed-response teams that keep the city’s frightful chimeras at bay. Oh, Jozi! Too stingy with your wealth, too full of your open-armed promises of a better life – these muted dreams which, like the morse-code tappings of your skyline, are like a thing on the verge, but still incomplete. This, too, will take some getting used to again. The city, so unlovely in so many ways, stretches out like a sleeper unhurried by the dawn. The sun hangs like a pendant over the mine dumps, the power stanchions, the six- and eight-lane highways. I suppose a love that’s easily explained is hardly worth the effort. When we get off in Sandton the morning air bites me to the bone. Goodbye, goodbye, tropics! I’m back in my mile-high city, my sun-scoured palace on the veld.

The taxis are lined up at the station. During the week there is a shuttle bus running between Sandton and Rosebank, but on this Saturday morning, I am shit out of luck. The driver handles my bags daintily, accustomed, perhaps, to high-strung Sandton types. He is of a familiar sort, found at taxi ranks the world over, reading a much-handled morning edition, pontificating with his peers. I do not have to pick up the day’s Times to know the score. Strike season has returned, he says, as sure as spring training in Port St. Lucie. “Monday it is the coal,” he says. “Tuesday is going to be another one.” Maybe it will be the teachers, or the nurses. Already some strike or other has crippled the delivery of petrol to the gas stations; there are shortages across the country. Fuel trucks are being escorted by armed teams under the cover of night. “Eish,” he says, that simple South African syllable which contains worlds of grief, resignation, gallows humor. And has he heard any news about the Gautrain station in Rosebank, I ask? “They keep telling us ‘month end, month end,’” he says, “but we don’t know which month. Maybe it is November, December.”

Had the Rosebank station opened according to schedule, I would’ve saved myself about 15 bucks. Still, I have no grief in my heart for this lovely, leafy suburb. Since meeting my friend Cihan last year, her two-bedroom flat on Tyrwhitt Avenue has been the lode star of my aspirations in Joburg. It is a beautiful apartment – hardwood floors, a garden, huge bay windows full of sunlight – and just a few minutes’ walk from The Zone mall, an open-air complex peopled by the city’s loveliest sorts in every color the Rainbow Nation has to offer. On dreary nights in Auckland Park, eating leftover stir-fry and simmering with quiet rage at the housemates who refused to do their dishes, I would dream of a time when, through some improbable career twists and turns, I could afford to live a Rosebank life.

And now, suddenly, I am. Had I been crashing anywhere but Rosebank on my first night back in Joburg, perhaps the city – big, sprawling, ungainly, in spite of its charms – might have lost some of its luster. Perhaps I would’ve stuck to my original plan and been booking a flight to Dar es Salaam as I type these words. But the neighborhood appeases my inner New Yorker; there are tree-lined sidewalks with actual people walking on them, neighbors stopping for a chat. Jan Smuts Avenue – a straight shot by taxi into the heart of the city – is just down the street. Everything I need in my day-to-day life is a short walk from my front door. In five minutes I can be shopping at Pick ‘n’ Pay, eating pizza at Doppio Zero, working out at Planet Fitness, or boarding a taxi to Newtown. For a non-driving New York transplant, the place reeks of a convenience you’re not likely to find elsewhere in Joburg, unless you’re squatting in Sandton City or Montecasino.

By late morning, I’ve mentioned to Cihan that I might stick around longer than planned. What’s the big hurry to get to Zanzibar, anyway? I can pass a busy month in Joburg, head down to the Cape in early September; surely there’s nothing stopping me from getting to Stone Town in October – to catch the tail-end of the dry season, the last straggles of Indian-summer tourists. Cihan, accustomed to my whims, still fruitless in her search for a roommate, offers me the guest room for as long as I need it. In the afternoon, cruising the shops at the Zone, plotting the week ahead – drinks in Greenside; dinner in Parkhurst; a show in Newtown; a panel discussion at Wits – I’m reminded of the fullness of life here. I’ve missed the social and cultural life of this city: the Tuesday-night gallery openings, getting shit-faced over Cape wines; the readings and exhibitions and high-brow ephemera of urban life. Since I arrived my gray matter has been overloaded, synapses firing like a 21-gun salute to the life I’ve always wanted. Why not Joburg redux, then? I’ve returned on something resembling sound financial footing – the first time I can say that in the better part of a decade. Renting Cihan’s spare room – so unthinkable a year ago, when I dreaded the first of the month in my Auckland Park commune – would strain, but not altogether break, my budget. I could be really happy here.

The more time I spend mentally trying on my new life in Rosebank, the more I like the fit. Zanzibar suddenly seems a long way off. Kwaheri, kwaheri, island fantasy! Just three days after debarking at OR Tambo International, I’m signing up for a one-month membership at Planet Fitness, a swank health club on the top floor of the Rosebank Mall. (Motto: “It’s not just another gym, it’s another way of life.”) More than a month removed from Ouagadougou’s Super Gym Club, shaken daily by the fear that my body will fall into some irreparable state of decline, I hit the floor on my first day with the passion of a religious convert. To squat! To crunch! To live! Surely there are some Latin phrases that would come in handy. The marvels of this high-tech masochist’s workshop, the machinery scientifically engineered to brutalize the body into some higher Platonic ideal, are alone worth the price of admission. What wonders have descended on the modern world of physical fitness as I was curling and pressing through my poor-man’s reps in Ouaga! Everything looks so finely calibrated, so lustrous, so goddamn efficient. The tribe that inhabits this rarefied space seems likewise disposed to make the most of each workout, to say nothing of our allotted time on earth. They are muscled and toned within an inch of their coiffured existence, primed for weekends of mutual admiration in Johannesburg’s finer precincts.

Have I mentioned the girls? They are a lovely species of gym bunnies. Spandex-besuited, fashionably flustered on their treadmills and yoga mats, they seem like an extension of the aspirational lifestyle I’m committing myself to here in Rosebank. After a single afternoon I find it hard to recall that I’d ever worked out any other way. You can imagine the shock and dismay of these South Africans – accustomed, as they are, to all the accoutrements of a Northern Hemisphere lifestyle – as I describe the rigors of my Super Gym Club routine: the windows rattling with harmattan winds, the unbearable heat of an April afternoon sans climatisée, the machines like the relics of some Soviet-era Olympic training complex in Podolsk. The things I have braved and seen would no doubt make for some interesting banter around the water fountain. But I am too focused for socializing. Time’s terrible passage might continue with each agonizing, irrevocable moment that slips away, but fuck if I’m going to stand around with my hands on my love handles.

The nights are cold; I pad around the house in my thick Pick ‘n’ Pay slippers, puffing into my fists. Still, the mornings start full of joy, promise. Sunlight fills the living room. A mug of Cameroonian coffee steams on the table. In my first week back I’ve launched full-tilt into a routine that would appease even the severest Puritan. Chapter three of my work-in-progress is coming along, slowly, surely. I am excited by just about everything. Just days after checking into Chez Cihan, I make plans to visit Cape Town the first weekend in August – to reconnect with my old friend Andrea, from Kigali, who’s getting a Master’s Degree at UCT. The days are long and fruitful – at night I’m happily spent, I heap onto the bed like a sack of coal. This bed is, in fairness, just a mattress on the floor, but I tell myself it’s a concession to my conscience: still unaccustomed to an upscale Rosebank lifestyle, that solitary mattress makes me feel like some exiled Marxist poet. With time I might add a boxspring, some bookshelves to add to the Spartan furnishings of desk and chair. This will be a project for another day. It feels like I have all the time in the world.

South Africa, rise!

I’ve been grappling with more posts from my Botswana trip this past week, and I suspect I’ll continue to grapple with them in the weeks ahead, hoping to flesh out the highs and lows of what was, ultimately, a memorable month north of the border. This will take time; bear with me. If nothing else, my return to Joburg – kinetic, frenzied, mile-a-minute Jozi – has reminded me that I seem to have infinite pressures exerted on my very finite amount of time. The extravagant expenses I racked up in the Kalahari need to bear some sort of journalistic fruit now; I want to keep this blog moving forward, too – to comment on events here in SA, even as I unpack the baggage of my time in Botswana. The result will probably be a messy grab-bag of travel across time and space – a shifting from the frontlines of the union protests in Joburg to the shifting sands of the Kalahari. Be brave, dear reader! Hopefully this will all make sense in the end.

My re-entry into South African life has, on the surface at least, been as smooth as the tarmac from Gaborone. Chez Nous has largely been spared, this past month, the political intrigues and internecine conflicts one might expect from the combustible mix of nine twenty-somethings living in close quarters. Sweet, soft-spoken Amy has found a boyfriend; poker-playing Ryan has found an actual job; Wendy – much absent for most of my three months living in Auckland Park – has finally moved out, fed up with communal life. Otherwise, not a ripple to trouble the surface of our life on Finsbury Lane – Big Brother Africa, this ain’t.

(As a parting gift, Wendy left behind her wobbly, Ikea-style desk – the second piece of furniture to grace my room, and the first to give it the trappings of a genuine workspace. Exciting stuff!)

Meanwhile the usual rites of the young academic year are being piously observed – much cramming in the library, much braai-ing in the yard – while spring, after one last bluster from Old Man Winter, is upon us with all the spryness and fresh-faced vigor of teenage girls in tank tops. The change is swift and dramatic. Clothes are shed; flowers are in bloom; the haze that prefigures the coming rains stretches like cotton wool across the sky. One afternoon I find Jean and Llewelyn toplessly strumming their guitars in the yard, drinking cheap table wine and puffing on their water pipes. Bitten by the bug of college students for whom life – so full of possibilities; so bereft of disappointments – feels like an eternal spring, they seem to offer a reproach to this wizened narrator, who is only just coming to the age at which you start to know a whole lot better.

On the surface, youth, eternal spring, etc.; just below that, turmoil. The old troubles and doubts are creeping in, now that my free-wheeling ride through Botswana is over, and the stresses and obligations of my South African life have returned. Chastened by my financial strife, I’ve fortified myself against the coming month and its temptations – a jazz festival my first weekend back! – with a library’s worth of reading material: newspapers and pan-African magazines and my long-neglected collection of American fiction (Bellow, Hemingway, Salter: I’m back, old friends). Like a good little Raskolnikov I’m holed up thusly, fretting over next month’s rent, fretting over this month’s rent, looking to push my Bushman story on media houses big and small, feeling somewhat sullied by the fact that the Bushman’s plight seems to concern me only in as much as it might translate to an appreciable rise in my income, feeling cheap, feeling broke, feeling that Joburg life – a veritable pleasure dome of long nights, short skirts, and drink specials that might push even the most zealous teetotaler off the bandwagon – is on the other side of a very thick pane of glass, feeling that the entire system of life I’ve constructed these past few years has been built on shoddy foundations, that I would do just about anything for a steady income and dental insurance, that a good lay might change everything, that I feel fat in this shirt, and that the prospect that stretches out before me is of a long, anxious life – or a short, anxious life – of past-due bills, worn-out sneakers, unfurnished rooms and relentless stress, occasionally punctuated by the marvelous joys and epiphanies of life on the road.

This is a shitty reality to come home to. No, Joburg has not gone down well these past few days. The old restlessness has come over me, a manic scurrying of desires in every direction. Maybe it’s the spring. Maybe it’s just the occasional longing I have for home – a place I know and, in some small way, understand, for all its vast lunacy.

Or maybe it’s the dark national mood that has again come over this country. (Remember how bleak things looked a few months ago?) Discontent, malice, fear: they inhabit the air like the smell of a coming storm. Yes, the World Cup honeymoon is over here in South Africa. And Africa’s most turbulent, energetic, schizophrenic and, ultimately, hopeful democracy is once again lurching about in search of its own identity.

The most visible sign of something rotten in the state of Zuma has, of course, been the massive civil service strike that is now entering its third week. More than a million public employees have taken to the streets so far, over demands of increased wages and housing allowances; according to local media, that number is expected to grow this week. There have been ugly reports of clashes between strikers and police; between strikers and those daring to cross the picket line; even between strikers and hospital patients, who have been turned back at healthcare facilities across the country by angry mobs. This is the ugly face of democracy-run-amok – a bitter pill to swallow for those who, having grown with the apartheid struggle, remember the days when labor unions were seen as an important voice of social protest for blacks – one of the few entries into the political space not banned by the apartheid government.

Political protest has given way to political theater, if not outright farce. COSATU – the largest of this country’s labor unions – is flexing its muscles; as part of the tripartite alliance (with the South African Communist Party and the ruling ANC), it still feels itself owed by President Zuma after helping to deliver the presidency to him at the ANC’s historic Polokwane conference three years ago. Now the alliance is under strain, “dysfunctional,” in the words of COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi last week. “The center cannot hold,” Vavi told the press. More political shuffling, retrenchment, realignment ahead. (Unraveling the history of shifting allegiances, back-stabbing, front-stabbing, broken promises, kept promises, reneged promise, hopes and disillusionments between and within each of the alliance members is more than this reporter can manage.) The government insists that the strikers’ demands are unreasonable, that they threaten to bankrupt its already overtaxed coffers. (World Cup stadium in Port Elizabeth, anybody?) Meanwhile more reports of government misdeeds: ANC cronies linked to a corrupt waste management deal in Limpopo province; President Zuma’s own son implicated in a scandal involving the South African arm of the steel giant, ArcelorMittal. Bitterness, fear, fury. How quickly the dreams of the World Cup have dimmed and faded, like the last gasps of fireworks bursting over Soccer City six weeks ago. It’s back to the dirty business of politics now, to the trench warfare of negotiated settlements – neither line willing to give an inch.

Striking teachers demand a wage increase.

Mad as hell: 8.6% wage increase or bust!

Construction workers join the strike...

...or maybe they're just on a lunch break.

A victim of strike-related violence.

It is important here to remember the good as well as the bad; a recent editorial reminded its readers, after President Zuma and his 300-strong business delegation returned from China, that despite the ANC’s fawning over that country’s state-driven development model, it was India – another vibrant, restive, contradictory democracy – that served as a more relevant lodestar on the Asian continent. The post-apartheid growing pains aren’t easily remedied – what’s sixteen years in the life of a country? There is still much to applaud in South Africa c. 2010: one of the most progressive constitutions on the planet; an active and vocal civil society; a free press that is the envy of journalists and editorial boards across Africa.

And so the ANC now has to tread with caution. President Zuma is on shaky legs; Youth League rabble-rouser Julius Malema last week warned that “if this president is determined to serve a second term, that will be determined by the next congress.” (And elsewhere, to the ANC: “adapt or die.”) Looming in the background, too, are the proposed media regulations that have sent the chattering classes into a frenzy. The Protection of Information Bill being discussed before Parliament – which would empower the government to classify any information it considers to be against something broadly defined as the “national interest” – would be a massive step back for this country. (The journalist R.W. Johnson, in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, warned of a return to “the dark ages” – also known as the era of apartheid.) Likewise the proposed media tribunal, which would ultimately make the print media answerable to an ANC-controlled Parliament, seems like a transparent attempt to muzzle a press that, for all its flaws, has done a courageous and necessary job of exposing the corrupt heart of the ANC. As high-profile scandals continue to hit the front pages every day, the government seems hell-bent on finding a way to constrain the press. (Not surprisingly, a report in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor made it clear that, on the question of a tribunal, the government is not about to budge.) So the question now is: South Africa, what next?

As the Mail & Guardian shouted from its pulpit:

This is not just a question of the profits of mining firms, or of abstract free-speech rights; it goes to the heart of a progressive and democratic reconstruction of South Africa. It is time to make your voice heard through every avenue available — business and civil society organisations, opposition parties and ANC branches, schools and residents’ associations. As the great Desmond Tutu recently admonished in a more cheerful context: South Africa, rise!

Buses, Bushmen, and the road to Botswana.

Saturday, July 24.

Treasure is at the wheel, laughing and shaking his head.

“You cannot understand a word they say!” he says, laughing a rich, marvelous laugh. He lapses into clucks and clicks, wagging his head from side to side, smacking the wheel. Then again he is hysterical laughing. “You cannot understand them!” he shouts with undiminished pleasure. He turns the wheel, eases into traffic, shakes his head. What on earth am I going to say to the San, the legendary Bushmen? And just why am I going to Botswana anyway?

Treasure, the taxi driver, my Zimbabwean friend, is taking me to Park Station in central Johannesburg. In ten hours my 90-day tourist visa for South Africa expires, an event which would no doubt provoke South African immigration officials to ask the sort of reasonable questions – “Just what are you doing in Joburg again?” – that I would very much rather avoid. And so, Botswana. I should make it across the border with a few hours to spare. I will stay a week, or less, or more. Many of the practical details of this trip I haven’t worked out. My first priority is to make it across the border – to turn the clock back on my South African visa to the vital zero hour. Beyond that, everything that happens is a gift, a bonus.

Treasure – three decades now in South Africa – hasn’t lost any of the mischievous wit, the quickness and mirth, that I associate with his native countrymen. He is reciting now the vowel sounds of half a dozen African languages – isiZulu and Shona and Setswana and Sesotho – grammar lessons that he learned thirty years ago as a schoolboy. “Those languages are too easy to learn,” he says. And for him, they undoubtedly are. In the same way that I’ve come to move easily between the Romance languages – exchanging my modest Spanish for threadbare French or Portuguese, as the situation dictates – Treasure can converse with any of the region’s Bantu tribes. He is laughing again, asking my name in Setswana, in Shona. At the station we part warmly, riotously, exchanging our hopes for a happy reunion in a few weeks’ time.

In the parking lot hopeful porters push luggage carts my way. Buses idle, pouring out exhaust. The main terminal is bright, cavernous. Much bustling of passengers coming and going, families parting and reuniting. The briskness, the modernness of South Africa continues, after these past few years on the continent, to amaze. Each of the bus companies has its own departure desk, and at each of these a patient queue of passengers waits. Hanging over the hall is a massive TV screen showing World Cup highlights. I am mesmerized.

At the waiting area for the Intercape bus line I meet a Congolese girl who works at the French Embassy in Gaborone. She is waiting for her uncle who, it follows almost naturally from the fact of his Congolese-ness, is running late. We stand there and marvel at the simple fact of South Africa’s existence. Nancy, a Kinshasa native, has left the chaos and improbable happenstance of her home for a new life in the place they call Gabs. It is, after Kinshasa, a bit dull. She looks happily overwhelmed here in the bus terminal, a young girl in a big city with the unknown pleasures of the coming week ahead of her. We stand there laughing at the doldrums of Gaborone, the happy whirl and din of life in the Congo. More joyful cries around us as families are reunited. A young colored man comes up to us, pleasant and well-spoken, asking for change.

At twenty past two, just minutes shy of our departure, I join the queue at the Intercape desk. I hand my ticket and passport to the relevant functionary. There is brief scanning of the passenger manifest, then a more involved version of same. Something is amiss. Scrutinizing my ticket with a jeweler’s eye, the man gives a peremptory snort, hands it back to me, and says, “This is yesterday’s date.”

And so it is.

It seems my Joburg jailbreak has already hit a snag. Somehow, incredibly, I managed to miss the fact that the Computicket agent who processed my ticket had issued it for the same day. I was supposed to be on yesterday’s bus. My heart sinks; the ticket agent has already moved on to the next passenger. It hardly troubles me that a day-long delay might run me into potential visa problems. More to the point is the fact that I’m ready to go. Another taxi ride back to Auckland Park, another night of trying to scratch together a meal from the dregs of my cupboard, simply won’t do. One way or another, by the end of the day, I expect to be sleeping in Botswana.

Fortunately, my emergency plan – a long, crowded kombi ride to the border – isn’t set into motion: there are two seats left on the very same bus. Boarding with the bitter knowledge that my tight budget has already taken another R170 hit, I give myself a few mental kicks in the ass before acknowledging that, really, it could’ve been worse.

True to the agent’s word, there’s little room to spare. I take a seat beside a slender, woefully deprived looking backpacker with blond dreads tied in an unruly knot above his head. He smells powerfully of cigarettes and unwashed hair. He is from Reunion – “You know eet?” – a small, volcanic, francophone island a few hundred miles off the east African coast. He arrived in Joburg two days ago with plans to make his way north to Malawi in the weeks ahead. Wedged between his legs are a guitar and another string instrument of ambiguous provenance. I can picture him settling happily in a hammock overlooking Nkhata Bay, seducing some young Australian backpacker with romantic tales of Reunion – “You know eet?” – and rolling spliffs the size of a horse’s leg. Across the aisle is a white-haired couple wearing the pleasantly narcotized facial expression I associate with senility and happy old age. Shortly before leaving Joburg they lovingly interlock their hands, and whether on account of tender solicitude or arthritis, their fingers will remain like so for the remainder of the seven-hour trip.

Outside the sprawl to the south of Johannesburg: shopping centers, car dealerships, housing developments with row upon tidy row of identical, candy-colored homes. Dotting the veld around the city are mine dumps as broad and flat as table tops. The light is flat and chalk-colored; it makes everything look harsh, unlovely. Before long a stout, church-going woman rises, introduces herself as Faith, and asks to lead the bus in prayer. Murmurs – of assent or otherwise – are taken as tacit approval. Faith staggers from side to side as the bus weaves through traffic, keeping a tight hold on the small black Bible in her hand. “We want to invite Jesus onto this bus,” she says. (I think, not unreasonably, that he’ll have to fight for a seat.) Shortly into her homily the bus conductor taps on her shoulder and asks her to take a seat. It’s not that he objects to her preaching – oh no, on the contrary. He himself would like to lead us in a prayer of his own – part of the Christian mission of the Intercape bus company, which informs us during a short promotional video that they “start and finish every journey with a prayer.” (Also: “We will expand the company by the grace and guidance of God.”) When the conductor finishes he entrusts us again into Faith’s capable hands. “You might ask God, ‘Why am I suffering? Why do I not have a job?’” says Faith. “But His will for you – they are perfect!”

We are beyond the city now, barreling through landscapes parched by the dry Highveld winter. Brown hills and valleys, pastures the color of burnt wheat. Cattle with their dumb bovine heads bowed to the grass. Tractors, windmills. A line of distant ridges, like an EKG. We pass a squatter camp of wooden clapboard homes and tin shacks with tin roofs. Laundry is strung across the yards – bright print dresses, primary-colored sweatshirts, little kid-sized socks. Clouds of dust blow through the settlement with a Biblical fury. A woman and a man are on the side of the road, sitting beside two empty wheelbarrows. (“Are you HIV-positive? Do you have cancer? Just lie there, relax, because He is there. He is the great healer.”) Power lines stitched across the sky. A freight train solemnly scrolling across the landscape with a ponderous certainty.

Approaching dusk we pull into a rest stop, the Platinum Highway Super Shop. Much happy piling out and stretching of legs. Bakkies are lined up along the curb; teenagers pull into the lot, their cars throbbing with bass. There is a low-rent convenience store and a greasy fast-food joint charging R40-50 to clog your arteries. I buy cookies and a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate – neither the first nor last time I’ve had a meal of pure carbs on the road. Outside darkness is drawing like a curtain across the horizon. By the time we pile into the bus and pull back onto the highway, night has fallen like a rock off a cliff.

Half-way to Botswana now, and I’m nearly 100 pages into The Lost World of the Kalahari, Laurens van der Post’s tale of the San – or Bushmen – of the Kalahari Desert, written half a century ago. Van der Post, an Afrikaner whose family were among the first Voertrekkers to set out from the Cape in the 1800s, was one of the last century’s great explorers. The books describing his travels across southern Africa are a rich repository of myth, memory, history, anthropology, naturalism, humanism – and, of course, a florid prose in which a sky can be described as “velvet” or a view as “Olympian” without the slightest hint of irony. The Lost World of the Kalahari is a fine, fine book. Writing about the Bushmen – considered to be southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants, and a fixation of van der Post’s from an early age – he seemed to find the one subject whom, despite his diminutive stature, could match the epic scale of the elder van der Post’s velvet, Olympian prose.

My interest in van der Post’s Bushmen is not incidental. Nearly two years ago I proposed a story about the San of the Kalahari to my editor at National Geographic Traveler – a story that, I hoped, would match the heroic and comic exploits of my time with Kenya’s Masai in 2007. Though my editor left the magazine before we could discuss the details, it’s a story I’ve wanted to write ever since – sitting, as it does, at the crossroads of tradition and modernity in a way that seems emblematic of so many upheavals across Africa today.

A decade ago, the government of Botswana launched a series of large-scale relocations of the San, forcing them from their ancestral lands into resettlement camps. Thousands were uprooted. Four years ago, a grassroots organization called the First Peoples of the Kalahari launched a campaign for the restitution of their lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. A high court ruling in 2006 declared that the San had been wrongfully evicted. Yet since then, those that have returned say they continue to face harassment from the government.

Last week, the San returned to the high court to protest government efforts to deny them access to water – literally a matter of life and death in the Kalahari, one of the driest regions in the world. Since 2008, the San have failed in their attempt to reopen a borehole that had been sealed by the government in 2002; they have also been denied permission to drill a new one. Rights groups say the government is trying to expel the San as a concession to a nearby luxury safari lodge, as well as to a number of diamond mining concerns with interests in the area. Stephen Cory, of the rights group Survival International, noted that the Bushmen are being “denied water on their lands when it is freely provided for tourists, animals, and diamond mines.” As a result, the 1,000-strong San community still living in the Kalahari are forced to bring water to their households from outside the reserve – a long, difficult journey which is usually undertaken on foot.

The government has claimed that the San’s presence in the Kalahari is at odds with conservation efforts; they have also said that the desert’s harsh landscape and punishing climate offer no future for their traditional way of life. The government-built settlements, they note, provide access to education, health care – in effect, a modern way of life. But advocates insist that the San are entitled to preserve a lifestyle they have lived for thousands of years. They paint a bleak picture of San life in the government camps, where they are denied their traditional vocations as hunters and gathers. Few can find work; alcoholism is rife. In a matter of years, the way of life of the San – one of the world’s oldest tribes – could become extinct.

This is a complicated story on many levels. Leaving aside the usual and obvious critiques about various parties’ interests and the malleability of the facts in serving the same, what seems to be at the heart of this conflict are two distinct and wholly incompatible visions of what it means to live in 21st century Botswana. The government, despite troublingly authoritarian tendencies in recent years (more on this later), has one of this continent’s most enviable post-independence track records – one that would most likely impress, even if the bar weren’t set so terribly low. For President Khama, the future of Botswana lies in a robust, diversified economy, led by an educated population of entrepreneurs and technocrats – not hunter-gatherers. The San are trying to preserve the way of life – however difficult, however incompatible with the country’s development goals – that they have lived with dignity and pride for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years – a way of life that, by Khama’s standards, is not only archaic, but obsolete.

The president’s feelings toward the San can best be summed up by the tale of Dorsey Dube, a South African who was detained by authorities last year after she commented that the president “looked like a Bushman.” Insulting the president is a punishable offence in Botswana. Clearly, Khama did not take the comparison as a compliment.

These are the thoughts occupying my admittedly overworked noggin as we make our way to Botswana. At the border we move briskly through passport control. Money is exchanged at a less-than-favorable rate. Outside the bus the musician-cum-vagabond from Reunion is smoking cigarettes with a tight, pinched face. He is talking to a young rasta from Gaborone, also a musician. The impression they give is of co-conspirators in a plot that involves much good-natured jamming and boatloads of weed.

Soon after boarding the bus we are again barreling through darkness. But after just a few kilometers, suddenly, the city is upon us. There is, at first glance, little to differentiate it from the bush that preceded it. Only the telltale signs of streetlights and round-abouts – and then, magnificently, a very South African-looking shopping mall – are enough to convince me that this is, in fact, a capital city.

At the bus station, a driver from Mokolodi Backpackers is waiting to collect us. Along with my dreadlocked friend, a young couple from Switzerland crowd into the idling hatchback. Much good-natured negotiating of oversized string instruments commences. Finally we’re settled and making our way through the lifeless, Saturday-night streets toward Mokolodi – a 12-kilometer trip from the center of town. On the outskirts of the city, again, darkness. My feeling is that, after three months in Joburg, I’m back in an Africa that I’ve come to know so well. It is a peaceful feeling indeed. I sit in the happy glow of this reverie as a cold wind blows through the car, a moonlit, starless sky overhead. It is a new country, a new adventure, and yet in some small way, it still feels like a homecoming.

After the party, the lights go out.

Monday night, just a day after South Africa put the finishing touches on a World Cup that exceeded the expectations of most, the power went out across Auckland Park – a blackout that had us gathered around a grill in the backyard, boiling water over an open flame and downing shots of vodka to keep warm. There was something heartening in the mood: the universities had just opened again, after the winter recess, and with my housemates gathered again under the same roof, there was a touch of family-reunion about the whole thing. Jacques, who had spent the vacation with his relatives in Northwest Province, was full of the usual stories of alcohol-fueled mischief and massive braais – he was an Afrikaaner, through and through. Llewellyn brought a bag of warthog biltong – he had killed the thing himself. Sitting around the fire, everyone was lapsing into nostalgia, remembering camping trips past in the Drakensburg, the Karoo. The vastness and beauty of South Africa was much commented upon, and there was great eagerness to share their country with a foreigner. Itineraries were mapped out, trips planned. Great dismay when I revealed my plans for a weekend trip to Gabarone. “What on earth are you going to do in Botswana?” asked Eugene. (Answer: renew my 90-day tourist visa.) Inside the house, like a stage set for Macbeth, someone drifted through the halls by candlelight. Two of my housemates climbed onto the roof to see how far the blackout had spread. Their dark silhouettes moved back and forth across the sky like celestial bodies.

The power was on the blink again on Tuesday – and, according to friends, in other parts of the city as well – leading many in Chez Nous to hypothesize that after straining itself to the breaking point for the past month, Eskom had finally collapsed under the weight of its own archaicness. Rolling blackouts – “load-shedding” in Eskom-speak – are nothing new in this country. For years South Africa’s rapid growth has outpaced the ability of its apartheid-era infrastructure to keep up. Still, once the vodka-tinged mood had dampened, there was something ominous about a sudden return to disorder – or, at least, orderly inconvenience – so soon after the curtain had dropped on Sunday night. The power had gone out; how long would the unity and good will forged by the World Cup last? Already the country’s navel-gazing prognosticators of the press were looking with uncertainty to the winding road ahead.

They weren’t the only ones. After a month filled with what one H. J. Simpson might have dubbed “the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles,” South Africans were left to stand around, scratch their heads, and wonder where to go from here. It won’t be easy: since the country was awarded the World Cup six years ago, “South Africa has,” wrote Firdose Moonda on ESPN.com, “done almost everything with one eye on the World Cup.” How on earth to move forward, now that six years of hoping, planning and dreaming had reached their climax in Soccer City on Sunday night?

The plain truth is this: most South Africans want the World Cup to go on forever. They want to see the flags festooning every building, hear the noise of someone’s random vuvuzela blurting into their conversations every day and see foreign visitors who had such awful perceptions about this place taking so much pleasure from it. They won’t mind the traffic jams as team buses or delegations of officials go past, they won’t mind the endless queuing to shuffle into stadiums, they won’t even mind if it has to remain winter until the end of time, as long as the World Cup stays.

One company, said Moonda, had even launched a “Keep the flag flying” campaign, encouraging South Africans to wave their flags and blow their vuvuzelas for another 30 days.

That would only postpone the inevitable day of reckoning. Most South Africans seem resigned to plod through their post-football hangover now – perhaps even finding, after sharing this nation’s joys and triumphs, that dealing with the doldrums together offers its own sort of comfort. After a month of brilliant orange, furious red, and waves of green and gold, you can forgive South Africans for feeling just a little bit blue. The sadness is tinged with anxiety, too, as fears of a fresh wave of xenophobic violence mount, and South Africans of all stripes worry if the gains made in the past month will last, or if “this country of 48 million people will return to normal.”

It’s impossible to erase the World Cup from our collective memory; South Africa today is a changed place, and whatever challenges this country faces in the months and years ahead will be viewed through the prism of the tremendous achievement of 2010. But what about the tournament’s tangible legacy?

The concrete benefits of the tournament, wrote The New York Times, were apparent.

The government estimates that spending on stadiums, roads, airports and new public transportation services, among other World Cup-related investments, helped create about 130,000 jobs, softening somewhat the impact of a global recession that has cost South Africa more than a million jobs. And while some, if not most, of the stadiums may turn out to be white elephants, the broadened highways, sleek airports and fledging bus rapid transit system will bolster growth, economists say.

Finance minister Pravin Gordhan told The Times that “the long-term benefits are these investments in infrastructure.

“Once you build a road, it doesn’t disappear once the World Cup ends,” he said.

Bridges, buses, roads: these things no doubt provide a tangible public good. But William C. Rhoden wondered aloud whether the tournament’s benefits would trickle down to the poor.

[N]ow that the monthlong circus has left town, the hard questions that were raised by community activists before the World Cup are back: Who won? Who lost?

The event has generally been hailed as a great success, with talk now turning to a South African Olympics as a possibility. New stadiums were constructed along with new roads leading to the stadiums, construction that helped create thousands of jobs. But is South Africa — and a majority of South Africans — better off than before the World Cup came to town?

“How much of the profit FIFA makes will be left to develop the poor communities?” [Father Steve] Morero said. “I do not think it is going to move the ball forward. There has been a concern from the community over who profits from the World Cup.”

Many unsettling answers will no doubt come to light as probes of stadium tenders continue; maybe even a few high-ranking ANC heads will roll. Anecdotally, having spent the past month watching games across the city, it was clear that the economic benefits of the tournament weren’t evenly spread. In Sandton and Rosebank, game day felt like a UN summit – a Babel of foreign tongues and a kaleidoscope of international flags, united in what seemed as much a tribute to football and cross-cultural bonhomie as an homage to affluence and overpriced, mediocre food. Downtown, or in Yeoville, or in the parts of Soweto off the well-trod tourist track, it was business as usual – the World Cup’s uplifting of spirits unfortunately not matched by an uplifting of the bottom line. Bed-and-breakfast and small-business owners outside the main tourist precincts largely lost out on the long-promised profits that the World Cup would bring; so, too, did many of the souvenir vendors, who were shut out from the areas surrounding stadiums by FIFA’s draconian rules.

(Soweto itself provides a wonderful microcosm of how the tourist dichotomy worked. Father Morero, quoted above, watched dozens of tour buses roll past his church – opposite the Hector Pieterson memorial site – each day. But on the other side of the township, where Morero lived, not a single tour bus had ventured. One restaurant owner on Vilakazi Street had seen his daily covers rise from 100 to between 400 and 1,000. He went out and bought himself a Harley to celebrate.)

The uneven distribution of tourist dollars is hardly surprising, given the government’s commitment to fortifying those areas designated “tourist-friendly.” Likewise, the swift and heavy hand of justice doled out during the tournament, wrote Robyn Dixon in The Los Angeles Times, was an effective deterrent.

The South African government saturated the country with more than 40,000 extra police over the tournament. Special courts, dedicated solely to World Cup matters, operated late into the night, meting out swift — and often harsh — sentences (in contrast to South Africa’s usually glacial pace of justice). A cellphone thief was jailed for five years and hotel staff were jailed for three years for stealing.

The deterrent worked. South African private security firm ADT estimated that the crime rate had fallen by 60% to 70% around Johannesburg.

If rights groups aren’t already up in arms over this draconian World Cup justice, I suspect we’ll be hearing from them shortly. More importantly, as Dixon points out, “the steep cost of keeping police and courts operating at extended hours means the anti-crime operation cannot be sustained long-term.”

This is the great challenge for South Africa, as it shakes off the doldrums and gets down to the business of moving on. Having glimpsed, for this past month, what can only be described as a utopian ideal of the Rainbow Nation, South Africans now have to figure out how to achieve those lofty goals – economic growth, low crime rates, national unity – not over the manic sprint of a month-long tournament, but on the long, plodding, weary and pain-staking journey that lies ahead.

President Jacbo Zuma, still basking in the tournament’s after-glow this week, called this “the beginning of a better future for South Africa and Africa,” while Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded his countrymen of the challenges that remained.

“We must roll up our sleeves and build homes and classrooms and clinics like never before,” he said. “We have proved to ourselves we can do anything we set our minds to.”

This resolve and spirit will be, I hope, the World Cup’s greatest legacy – along with the understanding that, like it or not, South Africans are all in this together.

“We won most of all because we could finally say ‘we,’” wrote analyst and author Mark Gevisser. “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.”

My first memory of this tournament remains my finest: the joyful chaos that erupted in Newtown after Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the opening goal of the tournament. South Africans of all colors, shapes and sizes, clad in green and gold, cheered themselves hoarse as Tshabalala’s marvelous strike ripped past the Mexican keeper. Never have I hugged so many men with such reckless abandon. South Africa rejoiced: their Boys gave them something to believe in. And for just a few moments, anything seemed possible.

I went all the way to Rustenburg and all I got was this HOLY SHIT GET ME OUT OF HERE!

The feeling of dread was in the Rustenburg air on Saturday long before the Ghanaian team chased the Americans off the pitch. There was a listlessness to the city, a fundamental lacking of the sort of fever you’d expect on game day in the knock-out stages of the World Cup. Few were the Americans baring their pale, wintry midriffs; fewer still the chants of “Suck it, Ghana,” and “America! Fuck yeah!” that you would expect to fill the air like the drone of cicadas on a summer morning.

In Rustenburg, as in so much of South Africa, life revolves around the mall, and so it was only in that venerable shopping complex that the city’s lethargy was shaken off. Here were shoppers with a fresh spring in their step, united in their pursuit of quality goods at reasonable prices. The food court was full of fast-food chains and shitty Italian restaurants. The girls wore braces and jeans that exposed their bony little hips. Now and then you caught sight of a Landon Donovan jersey, or a pair of young American girls with flags painted onto their cheeks, but otherwise there was nothing inspired and noble in the air; you only felt the crass, fleeting pleasures of a day at the mall. It could’ve been any ol’ Saturday afternoon in any ol’ mid-sized South African city. Eating lunch with my travel companions at a restaurant of ambiguous Mediterranean provenance (which, FYI, delivered on its promise to spend 25 minutes preparing the tzatziki), we couldn’t help but check our tickets to make sure we were in the right place on the right day.

The sad reality was that most of the Americans who poured into Rustenburg two weeks ago, for our opening match against England, or who filled Ellis Park and Pretoria against Slovenia and Algeria, had apparently gone home after the knock-out stages. This seemed to be a damning indictment of American soccer passions, and a pointed rebuke to the many analysts who looked at our nail-biting progress into the second round as a watershed moment in the emergence of soccer as a major competitive sport in America. More on this later.

I was traveling to the game with a Pakistani CouchSurfer named Akram, and with Luke O’Brien, an American journalist who’s been reporting from the World Cup for Slate and the sports blog Deadspin. The absolute un-fervidness of Rustenburg was much commented on upon our arrival; in fact, due to some curious re-routing of roads on game day, most of the traffic in the city seemed to be flowing away from the stadium. It was a joyless start to a day that would ultimately be a referendum on just what the Cardiac Kids of Team USA had accomplished in South Africa 2010. (A lot, and a little, as it turned out, as Luke pointed out in his last dispatch.)

Rustenburg itself hardly rose to the occasion. The city is a dreary backwater where, I suspect, hope goes to die a quiet death. Many were the liquor stores we passed on our way to the stadium; many, too, the fast food joints and pawn shops. (On our way home, we drove past a wooden clapboard shack in a weed-strewn field, advertising the not unfair prices paid for gold and jewelry. Across the street was a KFC. Beside it, a small gas station where a nervous clerk fidgeted behind bullet-proof glass.) Imagine the U.S. winning the rights to the 2022 World Cup and choosing Gary, Indiana, as a host city. Luke reported that a large number of English fans had chosen Rustenburg as a base for their team’s World Cup campaign. It is not hard to imagine they spent two soul-sapping weeks holed up in their hotel rooms, staring blankly at the TV screen and dreaming of some quiet country pub.

(A not-unrelated factor contributing to the buzz kill at the stadium later in the day were the many Brits who bought tickets to the game, expecting In-ger-land to win Group C; likewise the Aussies who had hoped – perhaps a bit too optimistically – that they would finish second in Group D. This meant that many were the disconsolate souls hoping to recoup their losses, hawking tickets outside the stadium before the game. And many more were the fans who grudgingly filed in to take their overpriced seats, looking bitter and spiteful and pouring their scorn upon the pitch and really being dicks about the whole thing.)

The mood as we approached the stadium was grim and apocalyptic. Smoke filled the air – a consequence of the controlled bush fires burning around the area. A chopper circled above the stadium. Traffic cops and security guards hurriedly waved us through checkpoints. The whole thing reeked of a disaster flick before the extraterrestrial shit hit the fan. Even the sight of American flags gallantly flapping in the wind did little to dispel the sense of impending calamity. I imagined one of those flags heroically surviving whatever disaster lay ahead – a tattered pennant planted Iwo Jima-style in the center of the pitch, looking brave, solitary, and a little bit sad.

It was meant to be a day of heroics. The U.S. had advanced to the knock-out stages after Landon Donovan’s dramatic, extra-time goal against Algeria earlier in the week. It was, simply put, one of the greatest moments in American soccer history. Across the U.S., Americans who couldn’t tell a 4-4-2 from a 4, 5, 6 were running crazed through the streets; maternity wards were no doubt full of newborn Landons; even the brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange reportedly brought trading to a standstill after the last-gasp win. (Not entirely surprising, since most of the guys on the floor of the NYSE are so coked up they’d probably lose their shit over men’s figure skating). It was a remarkable moment, and a remarkable win. And if it allowed millions of Americans to gush and dream and wax patriotic and maybe even sell an incredibly stupid story to Time magazine, so be it. As South Africans will agree, the World Cup is a time for unrealistic hopes about middling teams. Looking at the draw ahead – a quarter which featured no-doubt worthy squads like Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea, but none of the tournament heavies like Argentina, Germany and Brazil – even I spent a few hours wondering how much blood I’d have to sell to make it to the semi-finals.

The hope didn’t last long in Rustenburg. The Americans again showed a knack for conceding early goals; as Jeffrey Marcus later pointed out in The New York Times: “Over 4 games and almost 400 minutes of soccer, the United States led for only three minutes, the final ticks of the clock against Algeria, in its only win.” This is no way to advance on the world’s biggest soccer stage. Though the team was again heroic in fighting back – netting an equalizer, and applying pressure throughout the second half – it continued to lack creativity in attack, and failed to finish in front of goal. The backline was again suspect; while the Ghanaian goals were both class finishes, it was defensive lapses that allowed them even to be attempted. As Luke pointed out after the game, on the long, sorry road back to Johannesburg, “The team wasn’t as good as we wanted to believe.”

[Disclaimer: I sort of hate the following paragraph, which has been much-reviled by the half-dozen or so people who actually read this blog. However, I felt, in the interests of historical veracity, that it would be a bit dishonest to delete it from the record; likewise, I thought it would be unfair to edit out the less-savory parts, since they're the only way to make sense of some of the very critical comments that follow. I disagree with a lot of what I wrote here; and I certainly disagree with the tone, which basically makes me sound like a white-hating dickwad. The fact is that this paragraph does a great disservice to the kind, generous, overwhelmingly goodhearted (white) people I've met here in SA. As Ndumiso Ngcobo put it: Some of my best friends are white. Still, I think there is more to be discussed here, since the debate over African v. South African (and especially white South African) identity is a difficult and nuanced one, and says a lot about the very unique and complicated relationship this country has with the rest of the continent. If nothing else, it deserves more than just a pithy, one-paragraph - and, admittedly, disparaging - treatment in an otherwise lighthearted blog post. Try not to judge me as quickly and harshly from this paragraph as I, unfortunately, judged so many of my friends and neighbors.]

The Americans were squarely beaten on the pitch; and in the stands, too, we were outgunned. A few small sections of the stadium were full of actual Ghanaians; the greater share were South Africans, loudly cheering on the last of the African teams to remain in what was meant to be Africa’s World Cup. A large number of these Afrophiles were young and white, proudly waving the flag of a country that most wouldn’t visit if you put a gun to their heads, and seemingly embracing their newfound allegiances with an unabashed lack of irony. Never mind that most white South Africans have never ventured into the lawless lands north of the Limpopo – or that when they have, they describe it as “going to Africa.” Never mind, too, that I’ve encountered “African food,” “African languages,” and “African crafts” around Joburg, and that these have unambiguously referred to things that were, respectively, “black,” “black,” and “black.” In my two months in South Africa, I’ve found white South Africans to have a peculiar relationship with their ersatz African identity. It’s embraced fleetingly, and only to serve a particular (usually self-deprecating) end. To be African, for example, is to wait in a long bank queue and have shitty customer service and then joke to your neighbor with a sideways glance about “African time.” It is not living in a crowded shack in a crowded township with no water and no electricity. Nor is it supporting an extended family with the piecemeal work you find as a casual laborer, or sharing a small room with your wife and your newborn child and your brother who is dying of AIDS. It is a sort of eye-rolling self-effacement that is, perhaps, the only moral antidote to living a privileged life in a land full of desperate inequality. It is a very shallow belief that “we’re all in this together,” when in reality we’re not, not at all.

Which brings us back to Rustenburg, and those waving flags, and the delirious, fleeting cheers that hardly lasted past the final whistle. Only on our way to the parking lot did I meet some genuine Ghanaians, chanting their threadbare chants (“USA! USA! USA go away!”) and furiously texting friends in Accra. It was sweet, and poignant, and I was genuinely happy for them. As much as I wanted America’s World Cup ride to continue, I remain unconvinced by our nation’s commitment to the sport. It felt like the sorry turnout by American fans at the stadium in Rustenburg was part of the bigger story of what American soccer lacks. In Bloemfontein on Sunday, over the drone of the vuvuzelas, you could hear the Brits singing their hearts out; they would have sung all the way to the quarterfinals, too, had a German blitzkrieg – aided by the worst officiating gaffe of the tournament – not sent the Three Lions packing. The Argentines, too, weren’t likely to be heading back to Buenos Aires after the knockout stages. In the same way that Luke noted the American team wasn’t as good as we thought, I’m not sure Americans cared as much about the World Cup as we thought, either.

The problem is that American passions for soccer have a short shelf life. I’m not talking about the diehards – those soccer samaritans who fill the stands at MLS games and show their support for teams named after energy drinks. They were the ones who lingered bitterly in the cold of Rustenburg, evaluating the ranks of American club soccer, debating potential roster pics for Brazil 2014, and showing the sort of deep personnel knowledge and tactical intelligence that was both inspiring and kind of sad. They were the ones who will be sulking over South Africa 2010 for the next four years. The rest of us have gotten up, dusted off our backsides, and started booking our flights to Rio.

Which shouldn’t make us any less grateful for what our team accomplished. Though American soccer failed to make a convincing case that it belonged in the elite class of world football, alongside the Argentinas and Spains and Brazils, it was at times formidable, and always entertaining. The thrilling comeback against Slovenia provided, as I’ve already written, the single most memorable afternoon of live sports I’ve ever witnessed. And the goal against Algeria made anything seem possible. The team didn’t always play with world-class skill, and it was often – too often – tactically lacking, but it exhibited that most cherished of American sports values: it played with heart. Even in the waning seconds of the game in Rustenburg, you couldn’t help but imagine some last-gasp goal was on the way. Even for a country of soccer cynics, the team (for a little while, at least) made us believe. And sometimes, believing is all we have.

Fuck yeah.

I hope the USA fucks today, and other World Cup wisdom.

Match day in Joburg.

The Slovenians – who come from an actual country called Slovenia – were out in full force Friday for a pivotal group game at Joburg’s Ellis Park against the U.S. of fucking A. I was determined to make a big day of this, my only match of the tournament, and for the first time all week the weather gods decided to cooperate. It was a clear, mild afternoon; despite the fact that I’d brought along more layers than a wedding cake, I made it through the day wearing nothing but a long-sleeved shirt, my Bafana Bafana jersey – and, of course, a Stars-and-Stripes draped across my shoulders. This is one of the more impractical bits of fan-style you’ll find at international sporting events. Every time you line up at the pisser or need to fart away your second boerewors roll, you have to worry about desecrating the flag that your forefathers died for.

Watch that hemline, buddy!

Stellar.

It's all fun and games in the FIFA 2010 Fan Parks.

Which didn’t deter us in the least. The enthusiasm and patriotic fervor at Ellis Park were as high as the prices. I have to say this about FIFA: they suck. Really, the way they bullied South Africa during the build-up to this tournament would make me want to wish all sorts of harm onto Sepp Blatter, were it not for the fact that the vengeful gods had already preemptively cursed him with the name Sepp Blatter. But I have to grudgingly admit that the guys throw a mean Fan Park. Never mind the gaudy prices – R30 for a 330ml bottle of Bud! – and the fact that you had to retreat to the toilets to find a few square inches not plastered with advertising. Ultimately, there were enough diversions and free-flowing booze to ensure that the build-up to the match was practically the day’s main event.

I want YOU...never to wear denim shorts in public again!

There were Americans in full-on Uncle Sam regalia and Mexicans in sombreros and a fusty old Englishman decked out like King James – tempted, perhaps, to reclaim the colonies once the game was through. There were Germans in lederhosen and Frenchmen carrying baguettes over their shoulders. (I might have made that last bit up.) There were two Croatians showing their Slavic solidarity with both the Slovenians and the Serbians (who were playing Germany in the early match on the big screen), and a couple of Chinese guys dressed like dragons. It was an encyclopedic assemblage of cultural stereotypes, united in our desire to cheer on our nations and hook up with foreign chicks. It was a proud day to be a citizen of the world.

And prouder still to be a citizen of the U.S. of America, a nation whose women are known the world over for taking out their tits at the slightest provocation. This being a high-profile sporting event, three American girls in short-shorts and bikini tops paraded around with patriotic platitudes scribbled across their nubile tummies. It was safe to say these young patriots did not come with their parents. The girls proved second in popularity only to the topless, 300-pound Slovenian, whose hirsute back – reminiscent of basement carpeting – afforded many fine photo ops. (This man, it turned out, was the CEO of Slovenia’s National Tourism Board, whose official slogan is, “Slovenia! More hair than you remember!”) However things played out on the pitch later in the day, it was clear that in the all-important showdown of sluttily dressed girls, the U.S. was outpacing Slovenia by a considerable margin.

I lodged a few complaints over this fact with a contingent of middle-aged Slovenian men, who sort of gave the impression that the good times in Ljubljana started with the fall of Tito and haven’t eased up since. They were full of Slavic wisdom; one clapped me on the shoulder and rattled off an aphorism that might have once graced the back of a 100-dinar note: “If you go to Venice, you don’t bring your own pigeons.” This stroke of brilliance struck me as almost Confucian. While FIFA didn’t miss much in the way of marketing opportunities, surely they dropped the Jabulani by not issuing a “FIFA 2010 World Cup Guide to International Promiscuity.” (Which isn’t to say soccer’s organizing body was oblivious to the event’s randiness: boxes of Choice condoms were on proud display above every sink in the men’s room.)

Just because you're having a quick screw in the toilet stall doesn't mean you can't be safe about it.

I admired these Slovenians, with their ruddy faces and hairy backs and inspired slogans like, “USA! USA! USA but not today!” Caught up in the spirit of things, I commented to one man that if Americans knew how much fun were their Slovenian brethren, we might not keep confusing the place with Slovakia. He took this as high praise indeed. Another, egged on by my cheeky comment about the weather in Bratislava, showed off his country’s famous wit by responding, “I do not know. I have never been to Bratislava.”

There were signs of tension, too. When I wished one man good luck before predicting a 3-1 American triumph, he growled, “I hope the USA fucks today.” (That the verb “fuck” should be equated with poor performance is an unfortunate commentary on the state of affairs in the smallest nation to join the FIFA 2010 World Cup.) But his snarling response was an exception to the general rule, which stated that for an afternoon – if only one afternoon – it was not only okay but encouraged to hug shirtless Slavs and take pictures of random guys in lederhosen and high-five dudes coming out of the men’s room.

Partly the high mood on Friday owed to the fact that Americans don’t feel threatened by countries they can’t find on a map. Unless you pointed your nukes at us at some point between the Truman and Reagan administrations, we as a nation refuse to take you seriously. Most of the Americans in the crowd, I’m sure, weren’t convinced that Slovenia was an actual country until they started playing the national anthem. It was sort of like how you always knew the Washington Generals weren’t really a team when they lined up to play the Harlem Globetrotters. Now and then I could spot a few Americans in the crowd looking at their Slovenian neighbors, flashing a sly wink, and saying, “Come on, really? Really?”

Actual Slovenians.

But Slovenia is, in fact, an actual country, with an actual football team that, for 45 minutes on Friday, kicked us around the pitch. It was a grim first half for the Americans, with a geriatric performance from our backline and a sinking suspicion that we were 45 minutes away from turning our attention to 2014. Coach Bradley clearly hadn’t conferred with the Slovenians before the tournament: instead of bringing his proud American eagles to South Africa, he seemed to bring a bunch of pigeons. With beer and toilet queues resembling Cold War-era bread lines in Sarajevo, it seemed as if the day – which started off on such a high note – would end with even more Slovenian men taking off their shirts and singing militant odes to the Fatherland.

Slovenians patiently waiting to use the facilities.

Only the Americans came out in the second half in inspired form, as if to remind the world, “Hey, remember the Internet? We invented it!” Just minutes after the re-start, the ageless Landon Donovan struck a terrific goal to bring us one back; and less than ten minutes from time, after a frenetic flurry of attacking football at both ends of the pitch, a crisp finish by Michael Bradley brought the Americans on level terms. The term “manic” would not be inappropriate here. Around the stadium – a sea of red, white and fuck-yeah Yankee blue – American fists pumped in the air, flags gallantly streamed in the twilight’s last gleaming, and just about everyone knew they had an excellent shot at getting laid before the night was through. Minutes later, when second-half substitute Maurice Edu put a corner kick into the back of the net – completing what appeared to be a miraculous comeback for the Yanks – I had perhaps the finest sporting moment of my life, gratefully shared with the little Peruvian dude next to me, who, FYI, could bearhug like you wouldn’t believe.

Bedlam after a late equalizer for the U.S. of fucking A.

Like Communism and print journalism, though, it couldn’t possibly last. Confused moments on the pitch; a scrum around the soon-to-be-vilified official; downtrodden American players jogging toward midfield. The goal was disallowed, though it took some minutes for those of us chanting “USA! USA! USA!” in section U67 to recognize that fact. It is the funny thing about live sporting events: you often have not a fucking clue what’s going on in front of you. This is probably a good thing, because had any of us realized what a high holy reaming we’d gotten from Malian referee Koman Coulibaly, we might have stormed the pitch like a bunch of drunken Englishmen. As such we were left scratching our heads, grateful for an improbable comeback which, though soured by the phantom foul, put us in an enviable position: controlling our fate ahead of the final group game, against Algeria.

What has two thumbs, a stupid hat, and a shit-eating grin at his first World Cup match? THIS GUY!

It was expected to be a three-team bandwagon for me this World Cup, but after another clunker by England on Friday night and South Africa’s meltdown against Uruguay earlier in the week, it looks like the Americans might be my best shot for football magic here in 2010. Even the rest of the six African squads – five, if you don’t really count Algeria – have proven to be a terrible disappointment. Cameroon, unable to convert their chances in front of goal against Denmark Saturday night, were the first team to be sent home from FIFA 2010, with two losses in as many games. Nigeria, leveled by an inexplicable red card against Greece last week, are also winless; they’ll need a win against a tough South Korean squad to go through. Ghana – so promising after winning their opener – incredibly conceded a goal to a ten-man Australian team that, despite playing most of the match a man down, wrung a draw out of the Africans. Ghana now face the unenviable task of needing points from a showdown with Germany to advance. Côte d’Ivoire – perhaps the strongest of the African sides in the tournament – had an uphill climb from the start, placed in the “Group of Death” with Brazil and Portugal. After securing a hard-earned point in a 0-0 draw with Portugal, the Ivorians were samba’d off the pitch last night in Soccer City, where the Brazilians – aided by some dubious officiating and incredible finishing – put another dent in the continent’s World Cup dreams. (I’m sure we’re all united in our hopes that the Algerians stink up the pitch in Pretoria on Wednesday, with the Americans needing a win to advance.)

I don’t find this all terrifically surprising. Much was made of the fact that this is “Africa’s World Cup,” and I suppose that on some level, playing on South African soil could have given some added inspiration to the African nations. But for all the rabid support of South African fans, the African teams left their staunchest supporters behind for 2010. Between the high cost of travel and the various ticketing fiascos with FIFA, most Ghanaians and Cameroonians are watching this World Cup from their couches, like the rest of the world.

More importantly, there’s the simple matter of tactical football (or lack thereof). I’ll leave it to the pundits to pile on with their usual criticisms of “undisciplined” African squads, but the fact is that absent-minded defense, poor finishing, and some shockingly bad decisions have led to the dreadful specter of a second round in the 2010 World Cup without a single African squad. In twelve matches so far, the six African teams have combined to score a total of six goals. As an Ivorian man put it to me last week, watching his country’s scoreless draw with Portugal: “You have a woman, you must make a baby. You cannot say, ‘She is always on top.’ You cannot make excuses.

“You cannot say the referees. You cannot say the vuvuzelas. You must score goals.”

Some day, South Africa will change the world.

World Cup Fever (n.) – A condition of the head and heart experienced every four years by some two billion people. Symptoms include rabid chest-pounding, incessant flag waving, the wearing of funny hats, and the search for promiscuous sex with nationals of 31 other countries. Common treatments include silly dances and frequent medication of at least 80 proof. Patients should be allowed to let the fever run its course for one month (see also, World Cup Hangover).

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You might have noticed by now that the thing they call the World Cup began this weekend in South Africa. After six years of head-shaking and hand-wringing over this country’s readiness, the tournament kicked off without a hitch – unless, that is, you’re English goalkeeper Robert Green, whose boneheadedness in front of the goal allowed a very valiant American squad to earn a point in Rustenburg on Saturday night.

The build-up to this month-long lovefest of country and the beautiful game reached a fever pitch at about 15:59h local time on Friday, before the host nation and Mexico took the field for the opening match. I was in Newtown’s Mary Fitzgerald Square, properly kitted out in the yellow and green of Bafana Bafana, along with a few thousand other rabid fans. Flags flying, feet stomping, vuvuzelas blaring, it made you forget everything that’s been ailing this young, post-apartheid nation in recent months. If only for an afternoon (and one long, drunken evening), you really could believe in the redemptive spirit of sport to lift a nation.

This is no small thing for South Africa, as it lurches along on its uncertain path into the 21st century. I’ve blogged before about the economic malaise facing this nation, the disillusionment with an ANC government that has failed to live up to its post-apartheid promise, the old racial wounds that have reopened in recent months. There are fears, too, that the xenophobic attacks which cast such an ugly pall over this nation two years ago will return after FIFA packs its bags and heads back to Geneva. This is a time for joy and hope in South Africa, but it’s a time for some sober reflection, too. The World Cup lasts for one glorious month, but South Africans will still have to find a way to live together when it’s finished.

Nic Dawes, writing in the Mail & Guardian newspaper on Friday, reminded his countrymen that ”Bafana jerseys are not a message we send to the national team; they are a message we send to one another.” And in sounding a word of caution about the work that remains ahead for this fragile nation, he urged his countrymen to

make our engagement with all that is wonderful and awful about the tournament a monument to South Africa that is more lasting than any stadium – and we yell ourselves hoarse for the country that we are trying to dream into being.

There is also the small matter of football – or soccer, as we Yanks like to call it – of which the opening weekend provided some memorable moments. Bafana Bafana’s first goal on Friday afternoon was no doubt the shot heard from Cairo to Cape Town – a brilliant strike which sent Mary Fitzgerald Square into a frenzy of songs, hugs, and diski dances. (A close second for the afternoon’s most jubilant celebration: the ovation when the offside flag was raised against Mexico, nullifying a first-half goal.) Not even a late equalizer by Mexico or a Bafana shot striking the post in the 90th minute could ruin the mood; for hours afterward, Newtown was exactly the sort of drunken, joyful scene that this host nation was hoping for. Bafana might have been soundly outplayed for the first 45 minutes, but when the boys found their legs, they ran like springboks. (As a friend noted, Bafana tend to run on Africa time: they don’t usually show up till the first goal is scored.) With two remaining group games against France and Uruguay – who played to a listless 0-0 draw on Friday night – the door is open for Bafana to find its way into the second round.

It was a mixed weekend for Africa, perhaps only redeemed with a Ghanaian win on Sunday. After Bafana’s draw, which seemed to leave many South Africans grousing for the two points lost, Nigeria was outplayed by a very game Argentinean side – only some heroic keeping for Nigeria kept the final score close, at 1-0. The Nigerians couldn’t find the net, despite some promising attacks; neither could the Algerians, who, a man down after some terrible mental lapses, conceded a late goal to Slovenia on the second biggest bit of boneheaded goalkeeping in the tournament so far. It was up to Ghana, who were awarded a late penalty after a handball in the box in the 84th minute, to provide some catharsis for this eager continent. Asamoah Gyan’s brilliantly struck penalty gave Ghana a 1-0 win, earned them three points in what was expected to be a tough Group D, and allowed all of Africa to breathe a sigh of relief, after its first win of the tournament.

The Black Stars’ toughest competition in the group stages will come from the Germans, whose 4-0 drubbing of Australia’s Socceroos sent a stern warning to the football world that the Germans, as ever, can’t be underestimated. The group is worth following for American soccer fans: should we make it to the knock-out stages, our opponent will be one of the group’s top two finishers. Ironists might find it worth noting that it was the Germans who sent us packing in 2002, ending a surprising American run to the quarterfinals; and the Ghanaians who did the same in 2006, chasing us out in the group stages.

The Greeks, meanwhile, to the chagrin of my forefathers, seemed to drag their country’s doldrums to South Africa with them, after a 2-0 waxing by South Korea. The fit Korean squad vigorously pushed the pace, and could have netted one or two more. The Greeks, on the other hand, proved that it was all downhill since they invented democracy.

In Rustenburg, meanwhile, trans-Atlantic bragging rights were at stake during the U.S. and England’s much-hyped and long-awaited opening match on Saturday night. This game has more or less had the American soccer world licking its chops since last December, when the draw was first announced, with Americans hoping to equal our historic (and practically pre-historic) 1-0 upset of En-guh-land sixty years ago. I’ll admit that I, like many American fans of the sport, had divided loyalties going into the game. Most of the diehard American soccer fans I know are passionate supporters of English Premier League clubs and the English national team; we were as upset with Wayne Rooney’s ill-advised red card against Portugal in ’06 as with the Americans’ lackluster showing in the group stages. And I, after all, first gained my love of the sport during my year abroad in Manchester – a year that coincided with the rise of England’s so-called “Golden Generation.” Names like Beckham, Lampard, Gerard, Rooney, Scholes, et al., are to my soccer memory what names like Gooden, Strawberry, Hernandez and Mookie are to my baseball childhood. When the curtain drops on this most promising generation of English footballers in decades, a part of my soccer-loving heart will also retire from the game, only to be dusted off on nostalgic nights in some country pub in Glastonburyshire twenty years hence.

All that turned to horseshit when the Stars and Stripes were paraded onto the pitch at Rustenburg. Suddenly, the 2-2 draw I’d been hoping for these past few weeks went the way of David Beckham’s knees. I wanted Royal Bafokeng Stadium to earn a place beside the Falklands in English lore. I wanted Rooney’s red face to spontaneously combust. I wanted Lampard to miss another penalty – maybe a bunch of them. Sure, I still wanted England to advance – but not until after we’d dusted the pitch with them.

It was, for the Americans, an inauspicious start – a defensive breakdown, a crisp Gerard finish, and a 1-0 score line just four minutes in. Memories of ’06 – when a Czech goal in the opening minutes of our opening match more or less put an end to America’s World Cup dreams – came rushing back. All my worst World Cup fears were going to be realized. Rattled nerves. An English stampede toward goal. Not a single drunk American chick flashing her tits in Mary Fitzgerald Square.

Only something amazing happened: the Americans regained their poise, tightened the defense (more or less: we were caught out on a number of occasions), and spent the next 86 minutes going toe to toe with one of the favorites in this year’s tournament. After that disastrous slip-up by Green in front of goal, letting a very optimistic try from 25 yards out get by, the unthinkable became thinkable: we might really win the damn thing.

Well, we didn’t. But there’s no shame in taking a point from England in what will hopefully prove to be our toughest group match. Tim Howard earned his stripes in the American net. Jozy Altidore ran riot in the English defense. The Gooch gobbled up everything that came his way. After 90 frenetic, back-and-forth minutes – the most exciting end-to-end action in the tournament so far – the U.S. proved that it might finally be ready to justify its perennially inflated FIFA ranking.

And Mary Fitzgerald Square, on a cold, windy night, was behind the Americans. I was surprised by this fact; during my travels in Africa, where the Premier League is closely followed, the English national team enjoyed a dedicated following. Given the English roots of so many South Africans, I would’ve expected the same here. But South Africa, unlike Kenya or Uganda or Tanzania, still has bitter sports rivalries with the English, in rugby and cricket. (My housemate Ryan – himself of English blood – has professed his hatred for the English team.) And so with the wind gusting in Newtown, and me trying to stomp the life into my feet, a few hundred South Africans were stomping and cheering for the U.S. of A, too.

So were the Americans – at least, a few of them. There was a blond, apple-cheeked family who barely made it through the first half. And a trio of Mexican-Americans, fully kitted out in Mexico’s green, who were stomping and screaming alongside me. They came by way of Dallas and St. Louis, and they were great fun. The only thing to interrupt their full-blooded support of the U.S. were the eager South Africans who wanted to take pictures with actual Mexicans in the flesh. (This typically meant a drunk guy with a camera looking, blinking his eyes, and saying, “Hey, Mexican!”) A few college-age American males also drifted around the periphery, leering at girls and looking, like most college-age American males, like they’d flown across the Atlantic with a carry-on full of condoms and roofies.

So the World Cup is off to a cracking start. Ahead is a nervous week for the Americans. With little Slovenia (actual slogan: “Never judge greatness by size”) finding itself at the top of Group C, the U.S. has it all to do this Friday in Ellis Park. This, incidentally, will be the one and only World Cup match for which I’ve scored a ticket. After our inspired showing in Rustenburg, I will be out in my full, jingoistic, Stars-and-Stripes regalia. Already I’ve scored myself one of those stupid furry top hats for which the World Cup is known, patriotically decked out in red, white and blue. (Never mind that there was a Union Jack stitched to the top – nothing a pair of scissors couldn’t cure.) This week I’ll be picking up my Team USA hoody – or, at least, whatever cheap Chinese equivalent I can score downtown – and one or more vuvuzelas in red, white, or blue. And if I meet any Slovenians on the street, I’ll pump their hands warmly, wish them the best of luck in the spirit of fair play, then ask how’s the weather in Bratislava. Maybe I’ll even do my country proud by grabbing my crotch and saying, “Suck it, Slovakia!”

For the rest of the world, the bigger story will unfold in the next few days. Today the Dutch – perennial underachievers – kick off their title chase with an in-form squad that’s expected to go far; so, too, do the defending champions, Italy. Tomorrow two of the favorites, Spain and Brazil, will look to start their campaigns on the right foot. And then an emotional day on Wednesday, when Bafana Bafana look to secure a much-needed three points against Uruguay. With the country commemorating the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976 – a historic day in the struggle against apartheid – all eyes will be on the boys to carry this country into the second round. I expect this city to be an ecstatic sea of yellow and green all day long. And I, vuvuzela in hand, will be tooting my little heart out.

In Mary Fitzgerald on Saturday night I met a man named Vusi, a former soldier who had served for the South African army in Mozambique. He had with him a bucket full of soaps and sponges; like many soldiers he hadn’t been able to find steady work since leaving the army in 2004, and so he washed cars in Joburg, hoping to feed himself and his seven-year-old daughter. He had had a bad day – he’d only washed a single car – and so I bought him a boerewors roll while we listened to a band keeping the crowd warm between matches. Like so much of this city for these past few weeks, there was a carnival spirit in the air. Now and then Vusi would put down his bucket, scamper off to join a circle of revelers (“Make the circle bigger!”), do a little dance, and come back with a dumbstruck smile on his face. For years he had dreamed of a day like this. “When Nelson Mandela was freed, I said, ‘Some day, South Africa will change the world,’” he said to me. “And it is happening now.”

He told me more about his family and his life. The government had bought him a house in Mpumalanga, as part of his demobilization package, but there was no work there. And so when his wife died a few years ago, he came with his daughter to Joburg. But now there was no work here, either. A shadow passed across his eyes. Life, and life’s problems, couldn’t be put on hold, no matter how great the celebration. In a month this would all be over. Vusi looked at the dancers, then he smiled and sighed and shook his head.

“Why can’t we be like this all the time?”