Tag Archives: “world cup”

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?”

Time’s up, Mzansi, and the world is watching.

With the clock ticking until the World Cup kicks off this Friday in Joburg, the unfortunate stampede at a pre-tournament tune-up between Nigeria and North Korea yesterday couldn’t have come at a worse time. (Well, unless it happened at Soccer City this Friday night.) On some dark corner of the Interwebs or the FOX News Channel, I’m sure some beetle-browed pundit is spreading the contagion of Afro-pessimism like swine flu.

Of course, this isn’t surprising. The doubts over South Africa’s preparedness for the World Cup began almost as soon as it was awarded the tournament six years ago. Fears that the stadiums wouldn’t be ready; that a machete war would sweep across the Rainbow Nation; that al Qaeda would maybe, sort of, kind of consider attacking the tournament; that FIFA would have to activate “Plan B,” belatedly whisking the tournament to some more hospitable northern climes. Kicking South Africa like a Jabulani has more or less been a competitive sport for the foreign press these past few years. (This weekend, South Africa admirably kicked back. Take that, Europe!)

Yesterday’s stampede, which left at least 15 injured, was no doubt seen as some dark affirmation – and, perhaps, harbinger of things to come – for Afro-haters the world over. As David Smith reports in The Guardian,

all the old doubts could resurface after the trouble in Tembisa, a poor township in Johannesburg. Among the questions facing organisers is why the match was staged at Makhulong stadium, which only seats about 12,000 fans, rather than at one of the World Cup venues. Entry to the game was free – many more turned up to the match than capacity allowed.

Fingers are being pointed at FIFA for not anticipating the demand for free tickets in a city with a large Nigerian population.Neal Collins at Bleacher Report, meanwhile, reports that Nigeria “have been slightly tardy in their organising of friendlies, which is why all 8,000 tickets for [yesterday's] game were issued free, causing the crush for entry.”

It is likely, of course, that this will have absolutely zero impact on the games that kick off on Friday. Though yesterday’s fiasco – in which large numbers of police failed to stem the mob’s tide – doesn’t say much for this country’s crowd-control apparatus, I expect things to go more smoothly at World Cup venues, where a) there’s a much greater seating capacity; and b) the tickets have already been sold. The bigger threat, I think, will come from long toilet queues and ear-bursting vuvuzela serenades.

Flags and afro wigs: South Africa shows its colors

Section NJ, showing its pride.

On Saturday, I was treated to both at Bafana Bafana’s final World Cup tune-up, a 1-0 win over Denmark, in Pretoria. This was my first experience of soccer not played on some scruffy village pitch in Mozambique, or on a beach in Zanzibar, or on a street corner in Kenya; it was invigorating. Though the crowd, watches set to African time, didn’t fully roll in till the first half had expired, they were wildly animated throughout. It was, as I’d commented to a friend, like I’d gone to a party and a soccer match broke out. The vuvuzelas were trumpeting full-blast, like a chorus of flatulent elephants; the drums were beat like albino step-children; the songs were sung, and sung, and sung. At times, you had to wonder if anyone was even following the action on the pitch – until South Africa’s lone goal, late in the second half, sent the stadium into a frenzy. I’ve never been in a stadium that rocked quite like that stadium on Saturday afternoon (literally: a favorite South African pastime at soccer matches is, it seems, to rhythmically jump in one great, heaving motion with 10,000 of your neighbors – thank God for South African engineering!). On the way home, a street party had taken over Pretoria; everyone was mobbing the shebeens, singing in the streets, and generally giving a certain American writer a good foretaste of what the next month will have in store.

It’s been a long, winding road for this country as it prepares for the tournament, but finally, with a bit of elbow grease and some help from the North Koreans, South Africa gets its World Cup this week. Most likely it will not be a cure-all for what ails this country, nor the armageddon that the doomsayers of the British tabloids have predicted. As the columnist William Saunderson-Meyer wrote in the Mail & Guardian last month:

Dare one predict that the Soccer World Cup will be neither miracle-cure nor disaster? Just a marvellous sporting spectacle in an extraordinarily beautiful and hospitable country, enviously watched on television by half the globe.

What makes a world-class city a world-class city?

The author Heidi Holland, in this lovely piece from the Mail & Guardian, called the people of her city “permanently aggrieved yet incapable of changing the script.” If nothing else, though, Joburgers have proven themselves to have a sense of humor, as illustrated by this interview from the Sunday Times, with journo Chris Barron asking the questions and Joburg mayor Amos Masondo fumbling the answers.

Is Joburg ready for the World Cup?

I think we are.

What about the potholes?

We are addressing that problem.

What about the trenches that are left open for months for people to fall into?

The hardest working man in Joburg? Or a hardly working man in Joburg?

Again, that’s one of the big problems.

What about the broken traffic lights?

It’s being addressed in an ongoing way.

What about the street lights that don’t work?

You keep on mentioning these things one by one. And my answer is an honest one, to say yes, there are gaps, and we are working on addressing the problems.

What about the missing street signs?

The matter has been raised with the mayoral committee by the executive director of 2010. And, again, a commitment has been made that we’ll be upgrading these in the next two to three months.

What about the litter?

The city’s much cleaner than it used to be.

There’s still a lot of rubbish around, though, isn’t there?

There is a lot of rubbish around. Pikitup is working on a programme that seeks to mobilise communities.

What about the blocked stormwater drains?

Yes, because it rains quite heavily. Some of the problems … have been exposed and we are addressing them.

That’s an issue of maintenance, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s an issue of maintenance, but you know …

They’re not being properly maintained?

They’re not being properly maintained. It’s the kind of thing that should be done in winter.

Why isn’t it happening?

There have been some problems there.

What about the lack of reliable public transport?

Well, I mean we have introduced BRT (bus rapid transit).

On all routes?

Not all the routes.

Do you use public transport?

Once in a while, yes. I use a taxi once in a while.

Wouldn’t it send an encouraging message if you used public transport to get to work?

I don’t know if you’re aware of this but annually, every October or so, we use public transport.

You use public transport every October?

Just to try and encourage people to use public transport.

So you use public transport once a year?

Yes sir. I don’t use public transport daily.

Don’t you want to encourage people to use public transport?

We’re doing our bit.

The mayor of New York uses public transport every day to get to work.

The mayor of New York?

The current mayor of London goes to work on a bicycle.

That’s going to the other extreme, but he’s doing something that’s positive.

Do you think you might use a bicycle one day?

I will do anything possible to incline people in the right direction, but I will not do a public stunt simply for the sake of it.

If the public transport was any good would you use it?

Absolutely, absolutely.

So you admit that it’s not?

It’s not very good, but there is something that we are doing to get public transport right.

You plug Joburg as a world-class city. Isn’t this false advertising?

No, it’s not false at all. That’s a goal we’re working towards, that’s a vision.

In your view what makes Joburg a world-class city?

One has had an opportunity to travel to many cities in the world and therefore I’ve had an opportunity to compare and reflect. Very clearly, Joburg is one of the best cities on the African continent.

But you call it a world-class city?

We are definitely moving in that direction. If you’re talking global cities in the world Joburg is definitely one of them.

What are your criteria for a world-class city?

I don’t know if you’re familiar with our Joburg vision statement?

Is it the vision of a world-class city that makes it a world-class city, or the reality?

What reality are you talking about?

Do you know of any other world-class city where an unelected mayor has been in office for 10 years?

Unelected? What do you mean by that?

That you haven’t been elected.

I’m sure you know that the political system is different in South Africa. I get elected by the councillors of Johannesburg.

In other words you’re deployed by the ANC, not elected by the people?

If you want to criticise the ANC and bash it, do so. But don’t try funny tricks. That won’t get us anywhere.

The quest for excellence.

These cold Highveld mornings. 7am. 8am. Muffled under two blankets, pulling aside the curtains. Joburg’s palette today is gray. Somber streets under a sky like battle armor. The rain is steady. In the living room, no sign of my technophiliac German friend, no sign of the Irishman. The old-timers were up late last night; today they’re sleeping off the whiskey and schnapps and cans of Castle beer. I have not yet asked what brings these two old salty dogs to this youth hostel. Later in the day I will see them in the armchairs, on the couches, staring blankly at the TV screen. It seems like a shitty way to travel.

Outside the raindrops dimple the pool. The sky is gray and more gray. I have plans to go shopping in the morning, to see an apartment in the afternoon. Texts with Etienne, a CouchSurfer, who wants to show me a house in a neighborhood that’s not on any of my maps. I have a hard time starting the day. My body shuts down on these cold, wet mornings. I make an extra-strong mug of Ricoffy and sit waiting for the sky to clear.

It is a public holiday, Freedom Day – embarrassing to think I’ve just discovered this fact now. This is the day that commemorates the first post-apartheid elections of 1994 – a day for national reflection, self-reckoning. There is a TEDx conference in Soweto, with activists, musicians, filmmakers gathered at the Apartheid Museum to discuss the way forward for the nation. All day the Twittosphere is abuzz with 140-character reflections on the state of South Africa. @brodiegal says, “#16yearsago i really believed in the ANC. That is no longer the case. But I still believe in South Africa, and in South Africans.” Not one to be left out, I add, “#16yearsago I never dreamed I’d end up in South Africa. Life is funny like that.”

It’s not always easy to gauge the mood in this country, if only because, as one South African friend put it, “We’re a very self-critical people.” A commenter on one blog observed that “South Africans are never happy unless they are on the horns of a dilemma. As a nation, we exemplify the saying that there is a problem for every solution.” The spotlight of the World Cup – hyped as a defining moment not simply for the country, but the entire continent – has brought with it an even greater level of scrutiny. South Africans are prickly at concerns over the country’s readiness. The “image-making burden,” read a commentary in The Guardian,

has led the local organising committee at times to interpret natural concerns about practicalities – the preparedness of stadiums, ticket arrangements, security, transport and accommodation – as attacks on Africa itself by a patronising European media.

The anxieties over the hosting of a successful World Cup – with some officials now suggesting as few as 300,000 international visitors are expected, after initial estimates of 450,000 – are being played out against a broader backdrop of fear and insecurity – one that cuts to the heart, on this Freedom Day, of what South Africa has achieved in the sixteen years since Nelson Mandela became this country’s first black president.

“It is now widely agreed that “black economic empowerment” (BEE) and affirmative-action laws brought in after apartheid as the star policies of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) have failed,” began a recent column in The Economist, which described how plans for “redistributing wealth and positions to the black majority…have resulted mainly in ‘a few individuals benefiting a lot,'” according to President Jacob Zuma. South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the growing disillusionment with the ruling ANC – as well as the antics of its chief provocateur, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema – has given the impression of a rudderless ship drifting on an uncertain course.

There remain, too, unhealed wounds over this country’s deep racial divide, which have been boiling over in recent months. In February, The New York Times reported on the heated public debate over a new bus line linking Joburg’s poor, black townships with the more affluent, largely white suburbs to the north. In March, storm clouds gathered over the revival of an apartheid-era song with an inflammatory refrain to “Kill the Boers.” Earlier this month, the brutal murder of the white supremacist Eugene TerreBlanche by workers on his farm prompted President Zuma to publicly call for calm. Days later, a BBC reporter was expelled from an ANC Youth League conference during a race-tinged tirade by Malema. And a confrontation between the leader of a far-right paramilitary group and a black commentator blew up during a live TV debate, prompting the memorable refrain, “(Don’t) touch me on my studio” (itself to become a viral hit after a number of YouTube remixes). With the World Cup just six weeks away, tensions are high in the Rainbow Nation, with one analyst saying South Africans were in a state of “hysterical pessimism” over the future of the nation.

On the street the sky low, the air cold – an early taste of winter. I’m told this is atypical weather for April in Jozi (only to be assured that this will be quite typical in June). The hostel is on the outskirts of Randburg, a once-autonomous city that has since been gathered into Joburg’s sprawl. The CBD is a series of linked pedestrian malls and rundown shopping centers. Not for Randburg the glitz of Joburg’s famous commercial precincts, like Sandton. On the sidewalk a man arranges Christian books on a table: Heaven Is So Real, DVDs by the preacher T.D. Jakes. Two men in overcoats beneath an umbrella, selling apples the size of a big man’s fist. In a shopping center I buy an outlet adapter, deodorant, the newspaper. “Trusted friend attacked baby,” reads the headline in the day’s Star. The attack on a one-year-old has riveted the nation. Also, a story on a criminal syndicate posing as the police. Their cars were outfitted with lights and sirens, they had uniforms, a small arsenal. Men in a brightly lit gambling parlor, holding pencils over small slips of paper, watching the horses on the big screen. Outside a painted signboard for herbalist healer Dr. Zungusm. WE MAKE MEN’S PENIS BIG AND STRONG. WE REMOVE BAD LUCK. WE HELP PREGNANT WOMEN. BUSINESS ATTRACTION & MORE CUSTOMERS. HELP PEOPLE WITH HIV/AIDS. PROTECTION OF CARS, HOUSE & BUSINESS.

Moving from mall to mall – Joburg life. This one flashier, more modern. Expensive handbags, splashy sneakers by Adidas and Nike. In the supermarket I buy bread and a brick of cheddar cheese and a disreputable package of something called “chicken ham.” Children in sweatpants kicking little soccer balls. Boys blasting South African horns, the vuvuzelas. On the classifieds board, women offering their services as cleaners, cooks, nannies. Nessie from Malawi. Precious Nsimbi. A woman named Lindiwe. Gertrude. An advertisement on the wall – hotlines for HIV and animal cruelty, for drug abuse and child abuse, for human trafficking. The poster reads, “Wild Island Smoothie supports the fight against crime.”

On the way back to the hostel, SUVs and BMWs and a Hummer muscling down the road. A woman waits for the bus holding her cell phone and a single red rose. Another in a ski hat and heavy coat, a quilted blanked wrapped around her legs.

After lunch I have an hour to kill before meeting Etienne. Outside the hostel, I flag down a minibus-taxi. It is large and roomy and generally a few steps above its east African cousins. Music I’ve never heard before. Single gents, a young mother, older women. Money passes to the front, where the driver keeps one eye on the road. “Four,” they say, or, “Two.” The driver makes change for four or two and passes it back, saying, “Two,” or “Four,” until it reaches the right hands.

Hyde Park, jacaranda streets. Another mall, this one a fortress, hermetically sealed against the universe. I circle the building, looking for an entrance. Not for pedestrians, the Hyde Park Mall – I have to walk through an underground lot to get inside. Holiday shoppers, families eating at restaurants designed to look like Italian trattorias and Parisian cafes. The life of suburban Joburg, its walls and malls – enclaves of privilege and safety. The families are blond and red-cheeked, with a few handsome black couples mixed in. You would come here and think the demographic reality of South Africa was something like 85 percent white, and not the other way around.

In a vaulted atrium a slick car, the Renault Laguna Coupe, the prize in some promotional give-away. Two men bent under the hood, talking shop. A young blond with wind-blown hair, chin upturned, answering questions. No doubt his body was enbuffened surfing the swells outside Durban, or Jeffries Bay. A tall, grave black man in a belted overcoat is watching. On the promotional billboard, over a skyline of New York, the words, “The Quest for Excellence.”

Upstairs, in the bookshop, children in strollers, young women in puffy winter boots. Stacks of books on pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. Tell-alls by former soldiers and generals and special-ops commandos on the low, dishonest regional wars of the ’70s and ’80s. At the Front: A General’s Account of South Africa’s Border War. The Covert War. The Silent War. Beefy Boer men flipping through the pages, faces grim with honor and remembrance, thumbs like soda cans.

Outside the rain is steady. Three women standing under an umbrella. A panhandler on crutches. And me, a white guy, waiting in the rain. Minibus-taxis shuttling by, tooting their horns. Bystanders flag them down with hand signals – a finger pointing up, or to the right, or five fingers extended. These I am yet to decipher. This afternoon I won’t have to worry – Etienne arrives in a compact, rescues me from the rainfall and the whims of public transport.

In the backseat songbooks, a guitar case. His band is leaving on a two-week tour in the morning. They’re playing eleven shows in fourteen days, working their way down the coast until they reach Cape Town. In Joburg, he says, there are just a few good live-music venues – they’re lucky to get a gig once every two weeks. He drives us through the tony suburb of Rosebank, through Parkhurst, with its galleries and sidewalk cafes. At the traffic lights young men selling flags and soccer jerseys. Some holding garbage bags, offering to collect your car’s trash for a few rand.

Westdene. Students from the university walking with their backpacks slung over their shoulders. A rundown shopping mall. Trash piling on the sidewalks – the sanitation workers have been on strike, Etienne assures me, “It’s not usually like this.” The house is a work-in-progress. The renovation is behind schedule, there are still ladders and cans of paint and dropcloths on the floor. It’s a beautiful house, early-20th century, with hammered-tin ceilings. The rooms are large and full of light. Etienne is still unsure – he might want to keep the house for himself. It’s as good a place as any, but the timing is off – it will be a month, I think, before it’s inhabitable. We agree to take a few days to think it over. If I decide to move in – even if it’s just for a few weeks – Etienne’s roommate, Abi, will have a set of keys for me.

Afternoon. Skies like wet cotton. Etienne takes me to Melville, Joburg’s famous bohemian quarter – long a home to artists, writers, intellectuals. 7th Street, with its bookshops and restaurants and cafes. We stop at a sushi restaurant, plates of salmon and tuna and California rolls circling on a conveyor belt. Porcelain pots of green tea. Even mediocre sushi, after all this time, sets my heart racing. Etienne is telling me about the South African music scene – there has been a revival in recent years, sales of Afrikaans music are booming. There seems to be an important subtext to this – disillusionment with the Rainbow Nation, a reclaiming of Afrikaans heritage. Etienne doesn’t disagree with this assessment. Most of the music is trashy – an Afrikaans version of Euro-pop. David Hasselhoff on the Highveld, I imagine. The song currently tearing up the charts has a catchy refrain – it translates, roughly, to: “We will sail to a land full of women in bikinis.” I can understand the appeal, I say.

I ask Etienne about the dangers of life in Joburg. Like the other Joburgers I’ve asked so far, he laughs and rolls his eyes.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t go around downtown with my camera around my neck, asking a homeless guy with a broken bottle for directions to the nearest bank,” he says.

“It’s as dangerous as you make it.”