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.

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2 responses to “After the party, the lights go out.

  1. Pretty spot on. Glad I found this.

    Enjoy the Eskom tariffs.

  2. very nice article!
    i miss the WC too! I wish i could have been there to witness those events

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