South Africa has all but bankrupted itself to stage a glorious World Cup, says Rian Malan. Shame that all foreigners can do is worry about the nation’s crime rates
Here in Johannesburg, the most striking symptom of World Cup fever is a steady procession of taxis bringing foreign correspondents to my door in search of tips as to how the land lies. Honour requires hacks to help each other, so I always invite the visitors inside to meet my dog, Arabella, pointedly introduced as a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Those whose nostrils wrinkle at the word Rhodesian don’t stay long. Those who laugh get to share my coffee, cigarettes and pensées about the state of the nation.
Ten years ago, foreign correspondents always wanted to know why we Afrikaners were racist, at least in the sense that we lacked enthusiasm for the joyous new society Nelson Mandela seemed bent on creating. These days, their first question is always, ‘How do you live with the constant threat of crime?’ We apparently have the world’s highest rape rate, along with a staggering 18,000 murders per annum. (The UK, with a far larger population, has 900 per annum.) Statistics like these cause many whites to suspect that crime has become a form of ethnic cleansing.
Ten years ago, such talk was deemed a symptom of racist derangement. These days, even Swedish journalists take it seriously. I ought to be gratified, given my own penchant for describing SA as a place of gathering darkness, but I am not. We should never have applied to host an extravaganza so wasteful and vainglorious as a soccer World Cup, but now the die is cast, the billions squandered, and we have to make the best of what looks like a grim situation. Two years ago, Fifa’s gladhanders were telling us to expect nearly half a million visitors, but bookings are running at barely half that level. At this desperate hour, we can’t have the press scaring foreigners with alarmist reports of murder and mayhem.
So then, some perspective. Reading Jo’burg newspapers is often like being punched in the stomach by appalling crime stories. Last week, robbers chained a farmer to his pick-up and dragged him through the streets until his skull disintegrated. A week or two earlier, a year-old baby was brained and blinded by a species of criminal known as the ‘home invader’. But South Africa is a place where mutually annihilating truths co-exist quite amicably, so it must also be stated that my life in Jo’burg’s suburbs is blissfully peaceful. In the past year, there has been only one attempt on my person and property, and it was a pathetic affair. Aroused in the night by Arabella’s barking, I found shadowy figures fishing forlornly for my laptop through an open window with a butterfly net-like contraption normally used for scooping leaves off swimming pools. I routed them with manly war cries, and there have been no further incidents.
True, I live in a middle-class area patrolled by private security operatives in intimidating black trucks, but I do on occasion venture into the heart of darkness. In fact, I was in Soweto just last week. In the bad old days, visiting Johannesburg’s black satellite city was a nerve-wracking ordeal, marked by churning guts, chain-smoking and other manifestations of terror. The unease has faded somewhat in the years since, but I still took the precaution of inviting my friend De Waal to accompany me. A Boer and a loan shark by profession, De Waal is a good man to have at your shoulder if you run into trouble.
At around 10 p.m, we hove to outside a nightspot known somewhat inexplicably as The Oz Club. Inside, 200 dark-skinned punters were chortling to the jokes of a black stand-up comedian who greeted our arrival with howls of glee. ‘Look!’ he shouted. ‘White men!’ Two hundred heads swivelled in our direction. The joint fell dead silent. We felt like missionaries bound for the cooking pot, and verily, we were in for a roasting. ‘These whites all have penis-dimension anxiety,’ declared comedian Jordan Mazibuko, aka Jay Boogie. ‘They stand next to a black man at the urinal and their eyes cut sideways and you can see they’re thinking, “Christ, this just isn’t fair.” And you know what?’ he cried, pointing directly at me. ‘That’s exactly how we feel when we go into a bank!’ The joint erupted. When we laughed too, everyone slapped us on the back and offered us drinks.
Outside in the dark smoking alley, I ran into a sinister-looking youngster wearing gangsta regalia — baggy jeans, shades and hip-hop bandana. ‘Yo,’ I said, trying to look tough. ‘My good man,’ he replied, offering a formal handshake. His name was Amu and he turned out to be a pop star of considerable repute, and exquisitely civilised besides. Amu told me that he was increasingly in the habit of salting his dance epics with samples from piano concertos and the like. This inspired me to air my views about cross-breeding hip-hop beats with Macedonian folk tunes in the ominous time signature of 9/8. ‘Awesome,’ said Amu. ‘Let’s collaborate.’ Ha! What a staggering social triumph for a grizzled Boer, aged 55. I was pissed as a newt when I staggered out of there, pockets bulging with the business cards of charming black people who wanted to be my friend.
But what does blackness betoken these days? De Waal had offered a young student a ride home to her university digs. Naledi said she had no memories of apartheid, and wasn’t really interested anyway. ‘Julius Malema is a complete wanker,’ she said, further endearing herself. As we dropped her off, we heard Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ blaring from a nearby student pub and decided to pop in for a quick one. In my day, this was the Rand Afrikaans University, a grim bastion of whites-only Calvinism. Now all the boys had shoulder-length hair and eye make-up, and the only girl among them had black skin but was almost entirely Boer inside, thanks to 12 years in Afrikaans schools and another two or three at this mostly Afrikaans university. This intriguing new lifeform professed total disinterest in soccer. ‘I’m saving to go to see Deep Purple,’ she said, they being aged purveyors of early 1970s British psychedelia.
But I digress. This is a story about perceptions. I see that even the Guardian now perceives South Africa to be a very dangerous place, and I suppose the Guardian is right. World Cup fans bent on self-preservation should probably avoid Soweto nightclubs, and driving home drunk in the small hours is wicked. But rich rewards await those who break the rules. I arrived home in a state of exaltation, thinking that there might be considerably more to this rainbow nation guff than I am usually willing to concede.
Alas, poor South Africa. We have almost bankrupted ourselves in our determination to stage a glorious World Cup, and now hardly anyone is coming. Much of the blame falls on Fifa’s marketing arm, which sought to enrich itself by setting extortionate prices for tickets and hotel rooms and ruthlessly crushing any attempts to circumvent its monopoly. The global recession also counted against us, and primordial fear of Africa did the rest of the damage. It’s such a pity.
Last Saturday, I set forth again for Soweto. The new freeways beneath my wheels swooped and soared like rollercoasters. The new stadium at Soccer City shone like a New Jerusalem in the winter sun. Police lining the route looked smart and efficient, and the busses were running like clockwork. Fifty thousand Afrikaners in tribal war paint were on their way to watch the Super 14 rugby finals at yet another new stadium, this one located in the heart of Soweto. We came in the usual state of trepidation, but darkest Africa welcomed us with open arms. We drank quarts of Black Label in shebeens, ate pap en vleis (meat and porridge) around sidewalk fires, made friends acro
ss yodelling chasms of class and culture. The match started and ended on time, the traffic ran smoothly, and everyone lived to tell the tale — even drunkards who got paralytic with the brothers and missed the last bus home.
We were all so proud of ourselves the next day. The Super 14 final was, of course, a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Against all odds, we’d proved that we really can do it. It breaks my heart to think that so few of you are coming to see.