Event will unite SA, right?

2010-06-12 00:00

IT’S only been a week spent in Joburg and the World Cup hasn’t even started yet (well, not at the time of writing this story, anyway), and already there have been some profound images imprinted on the brain that have given notice that this will be a special month. For a player, administrator, member of the LOC, a volunteer in the stands or a football fan — which the majority of South Africans are, passionately — this will be a special month.

At the time of reading this story, you will know the result already of Bafana Bafana versus Mexico. I’m not going to jinx anything. Just please let it be the result millions have hoped for. Just thinking about tomorrow’s game gives me butterflies. The players, as Thierry Henry said, and he should know because he won the World Cup as part of a host nation in 1998, will be carried by the atmosphere and support “as if they have wings”.

One striking image, which the whole country saw, was of Bafana Bafana’s parade through Sandton, the Bafana jerseys everywhere, the flags, the people going crazy. It’s going to be hard to play against that, no matter who your team is. It was the same at the warm-up against Denmark in Atteridgville.

The Bafana jersey has become a symbol of pride again, and South Africans, after years of suffering due to the team’s abysmal results and performances, have fallen in love with the national team all over again. The Super Stadium, once it eventually did fill up with about 15 minutes to go to the final whistle, was painted yellow with Bafana jerseys, which has never been a phenomenon in South African football. It could have been Holland playing, just that the colour was yellow, not orange.

Access to the stadium was a nightmare. It was even worse than for Bafana’s warm-up against Bulgaria at Orlando Stadium. Traffic cops were absent at major intersections, with the result that they clogged and became gridlocked. All of this, though, also highlights the excitement for Bafana at the moment. People just want to get to the game. They drive on the wrong side of the road and pavements to do so. Whatever it takes.

It was an image of a four- or five-year-old girl, coming out of Atteridgeville, that caught the eye most. Everywhere, everyone was going crazy. Crowds spilling from the pavements stopped cars, motorists revved their engines to the max, flags were waved and vuvuzelas blown. And that was just for a 1-0 warm-up win against Denmark. By now the whole country will have followed suit if we indeed did beat Mexico.

In Atteridgeville the shebeens were packed and pumping. All ages had come out to wave flags, and shout, “Can you feel it?” The question was redundant and there was no need for an answer. Old men and women, and children waved flags. Amongst the colour and excitability, the young girl was in her own world waving a small flag. Did she grasp that Bafana had just beaten a top-ranked European nation and set themselves up for a competitive World Cup? Did she really know what a World Cup is? Who knows how much children understand at that age?

But she seems certain to remember the moment for the rest of her life. It was the day the World Cup came to Atteridgeville. Bafana, with their police escort, sirens and luxury bus, brought something to the charming township that day. I’m not an economist — I can barely run my own finances, so the logistics of the national economy boggle my mind. But I do know that hope is important, as long as it’s not false hope.

Matthew Booth, so often an eloquent spokesperson for Bafana, again summed things up pretty well.

Asked if the World Cup can help unify South Africans, the defender replied: “This is an often asked question and I think my answer is always the same, which is that sporting events can unite the country for as long as the sporting event is taking place.

“At youth level sport is a great unifier, and to a certain extent sport can [unite].

“But at the end of the day certain people will go back to the townships and others will go back to the suburbs. So unification is quite a broad word.

“But certainly for a brief moment the nation gets together behind one team and that’s fantastic.”

One day, my four-year-old nephew, Timmy, too will have memories of the World Cup. If he and the small girl from Atteridgeville ever meet it will give them something small in common that will help them identify with each other at some level, despite being from vastly different backgrounds.

One last impression from the week was of a street kid outside the block of flats I’m staying in. There’s been a hitch in the accommodation and I’ve ended up in a flat that’s part of a block that is essentially a huge Wits residence. It’s comfortable and everyone seems friendly enough toward the old mlungu with a laptop. Over the road there’s what looks like “the hood”, a graffiti-covered building that’s padlocked at its main gate. At night the only sign of life inside is of cigarette (or something else) embers moving around inside.

At early evening the street kid had drawn a crowd from the flats with his antics. But all was not right — he was clearly pretty wasted, and on something strong. At one point he ran into the street and threw himself in front of a taxi, which swerved to narrowly miss the youth.

What will the World Cup mean for the lowest of the low, the most destitute, those who have given up on life?

That’s not a question I have an answer for.

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