World Cup Travels in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Johannesburg: City of Walls
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
June 29 2010 10:05 AM

World Cup Travels in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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JOHANNESBURG—Once upon a time, Johannesburg was an overgrown mining town, the Wild West of South Africa, a place where people of any race came to make a fortune. The gold hacked out of the reef built sub-Saharan Africa's strongest economy, and what for rural blacks was eGoli, the city of gold, a place "of dreams, a place where one could transform oneself," wrote Nelson Mandela, who first came here in the 1930s in search of a myth that included "sleek motorcars and beautiful women and dashing gangsters."

Nowadays, the city's topography is made up of the hills and plateaus of mine dumps. Drive through Johannesburg—which is what you do; it's like Los Angeles or Houston in that way—and see a place shaped not by a need for parks and pools but by the urban planning of racial separation. Apartheid expanded here in the same period as the suburban dream of a house with a lawn spread in other countries. Here, it all added up to a hollow city that developed separate housing for whites and blacks on the edges of town, and a center where the races could meet for work and then flee back to opposite worlds. Blacks were required to be out of the city by 9 p.m. Even today, much of the downtown is weirdly empty of buildings other than offices.

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An old friend who lives in Cape Town picks up my boyfriend, Marcel, and me to stay with her at her mother's place in Johannesburg and go with her to our first game of the World Cup. "Look at the light," she says, as she drives round a bend in the highway. The sun shines a rosy glow over the valley—different from the golden or stark white light of other strikingly lit places I've been. It had not occurred to me to find Johannesburg beautiful. Shuli, whose Jewish family had immigrated to South Africa from Europe generations ago, had told me that her mother's neighborhood of Houghton was where Mandela lives and said everyone describes it as the "leafy northern suburbs." (Shuli is not her real name.) To me it looks like a city of walls. No house is visible from the street, just the stone and brick that surrounds them. Shuli pulls up to one of these private fortresses, presses a button, and a door slides up, revealing a garage, into which we drive.

The crime rate in this country is now one of the worst on earth—yet violence here is nothing new; it just used to be more confined to the townships. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission cataloged horrific apartheid-era abuses, like that of the police officer who acknowledged burning the body of a black activist on an open fire while he braaied, or barbecued, alongside. I once read a study suggesting that the level of violence in any society remains constant: When political violence stops, violent crime levels soar to roughly the same rates. Then there's an unemployment rate that officially hovers around 25 percent but could be much more than that.

Shuli's family has much to protect from interlopers. She shows us a garden with fresh-cut grass and rose beds, a pool, and a tennis court. Marcel gets excited by a long-beaked, gray-necked bird. Shuli and I leave to run an errand, and he says he'll stay behind and photograph the fauna.

But when we return, Marcel is sitting in the living room glumly watching the Argentina-Nigeria game on television. "The housekeeper came in and said she was going to call security when she saw me," he says. "She thought you broke into the house to watch the game?" I joke. But I suddenly see him as he might look to her: too dark to be white; a tall, strong man; a stranger in the house with unknown intentions. "I'm sorry, babe, that's awful," I say, kissing his forehead.

Shuli shows me her grandfather's incredible collection of Japanese ivory miniature figurines. As she talks about her family, for some reason, I can't get out of mind our hosts at the sparsely furnished B&B in Soweto—Sibongile serving me extra toast, urging me to eat more; Jimmy walking us around the neighborhood and saying the main difference for him since apartheid ended is that he now feels like a human being. I know little about the individual circumstances of Sibongile, Jimmy, or Shuli's family members, but all of them were part of a system designed to generate wealth for a very small number of people.

Later, we watch the USA-England game at the Melrose Arch outdoor plaza, which is privately guarded and considered secure, and which is crowded with people. Black? Colored? White? Groups are mixed, but they are all cheering for England.

Back at Shuli's family home, it's hard to relax at night, despite the soft pillows and the fluffy duvet and the deliciously heated floor that warms the pads of my feet when I get out of bed at 3 a.m., unable to sleep. The place is monitored by motion detectors. At 5 a.m., a guard patrols the garden.

The next day, we all drive to the Ghana-Serbia game in Pretoria, the haunted capital of apartheid. Short, old-fashioned buildings, a quaint town square. But Nelson Mandela was tried in this place. Here was the bureaucracy that implemented first the pre-apartheid laws—the Land Act, which prevented blacks from buying land outside designated "reserves"; the Urban Areas Act, which created slums to provide labor to white industry; the Color Bar Act, which barred Africans from practicing skilled trades. Then came the laws of apartheid: the Group Areas Act. The Native Labor Act. The Black Affairs Administrative Act. The Labor Restrictions Act. The Bantu Education Act. The Separate Amenities Act. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act. The Terrorism Act. The Riotous Assembly Act. The Gathering and Demonstrations Act.

Still, by the time we get to the stadium, Marcel is garrulous. I look at his face as he watches the players warm up. He's open, eager; he makes predictions about game strategy. I have never seen him so excited about anything. I feel the problems of this place easing away from me. Suddenly I feel I am giving him a great gift by being here with him. I kiss his cheek before the game.

The South Africans are supporting the Ghanaians, their fellow Africans, wearing Ghana-themed makarabas, the miners' helmets with colorful flaps that South Africans wear at soccer games. Ghana intercepts the ball with surprising consistency and passes it with skill, but every time they shoot on goal, they miss. Vuvuzelas begin to buzz immediately after the misses—it's not just an instrument for victory but also for encouragement. I watch the players' movements carefully, fascinated by the way they see with some peripheral sense opportunities for passing that I can barely discern while hanging over them with a birds' eye view. The vuvuzelas are buzzing. Pockets of the crowd are dancing. Then Ghana scores. I'm on my feet screaming. To my left, Marcel stands beside me and yells, too. To my right, a blond-haired South African girl stands in a yellow Bafana Bafana jersey, her father light-haired and large in a forest-green South African Springboks rugby shirt, blowing a vuvuzela. In front of me, black South Africans wearing yellow jerseys also blow the horns. My voice is hoarse, I've lost hearing in my left ear, and I am wondering whether soccer is a game I can get excited about.

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Robin Shulman is a freelance writer who has frequently reported from the Middle East and New York City. She is currently at work on a book about urban food production.

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