World Cup Travels in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Soweto: Soccer City Then and Now
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
June 28 2010 10:09 AM

World Cup Travels in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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South African map. Click image to launch slide show.

SOWETO—As soon as we land in Johannesburg, our phone rings. It's Cynthia, a South African friend of a friend who we had contacted for the first time a few days earlier from New York. "Where are you?" she asks. She, apparently, is here: She decided of her own accord to greet us at the airport.

It turns out Cynthia has arranged for a shuttle to pick us up, and the driver, who is also a Soweto tour operator, brought relatives. So we find four smiling strangers in the arrivals hall, waving South African and U.S. flags and holding a vuvuzela, the horn South Africans blow at sporting events. They glue themselves to us while we do errands in the airport—we get our World Cup tickets and take out rands from an ATM. I realize that Cynthia's mission is twofold: to give us a warm welcome and to protect us from harm.

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"We want to show that we are not a Third World city," says John, one of the guides, as we speed south on the dark highway to our B&B in Soweto, 15 miles from Johannesburg. He pauses, considering. "We are a Two-and-a-Half World city."

I've just arrived in South Africa for the World Cup with my boyfriend, Marcel, an astronomer by day, a soccer fan in almost every other waking hour. Early in our relationship, it felt sweetly domestic for him to watch the game with the volume off while I sat beside him catching up on e-mail. But slowly it began to register just how much soccer he consumed: He would watch the French Ligue 1, the English Premier League, the Italian Serie A, the European Champions League, and sometimes, if there was time, the Spanish Liga; he downloaded Guardian soccer podcasts to listen to on the subway; at night he lulled himself to sleep reading France Football. Marcel is an extraordinary guy—brilliant, attentive, funny, sweet—but there was a fatal flaw, a way we did not connect, and it was soccer.

Still, when Marcel asked me to join him for the World Cup—his fifth, since he vowed back in 1994 never to miss one—I was excited. He would get his fill of soccer, I would get to see South Africa, we would be together—and I would make a real attempt to acquaint myself with a sport that seemed destined to be part of my life.

We got tickets by lottery, which means our itinerary is not the leisurely coastal tour I might have chosen, but one connecting random soccer stadiums. We're spending three weeks racking up more than 3,000 miles, traveling by plane, bus, rental car, and taxi to seven games in five cities in most every corner of the post-apartheid country.

I am pale-skinned, of Eastern European extraction, very clearly white. Marcel's skin is many shades darker than mine—with a French mother and a Puerto Rican father, he has one of those skin tones that passes in many places for whatever is local: Indian in India, Latin American in Latin America, Italian in Italy. I rarely thought about this particular difference between me and him in New York, but South African apartheid would have classified us separately. How will people react to us in our travels?

Old photos of Soweto show tracts of tiny, rectangular, one-story brick dwellings with bald lawns of worn-down grass. The government built successive developments of identical houses; if you said the name of your neighborhood, it would be easy to guess the layout of your home. There was rarely electricity or indoor plumbing; there were few parks, few streetlights, no shopping malls.

"It was meant for you to sleep and to get ready to serve the master," said John, our tour guide.

Soccer was Soweto's outlet. In the late 19th century, residents of the area set up the first teams in opposition to whites-only leagues. In 1935, the Orlando Pirates team was born, with its skull-and-crossbones logo. Later, kids fashioned soccer balls out of crumpled-up cloth and shopping bags and played on impromptu fields in streets that had been built wide for armored cars to do U-turns. The local soccer stadiums became a kind of town hall, hosting mass funerals and meetings during the apartheid era and Mandela's first address to the people after his release from prison.

The apartheid dream was to keep the land, use the workers, but hoard the benefits of citizenship for whites. The government made blacks citizens not of South Africa but of "Bantustans" based on ethnic group, and it granted them temporary permits to work in cities like Johannesburg and live in government-built townships like Soweto—permits that had to be signed by an employer every month and that could be revoked at any time. For every white city across the country, the government built a black township on the outskirts, a bedroom for its gardeners, baby-sitters, miners, mechanics, and maids.

So Soweto, or Southwestern Townships, was the house that racism built. It became famous when in 1976, its children revolted. Kids 14 and 15 years old, fed up with the docility of their parents and with a new dictate that they be taught in the Afrikaans language, walked out of their classrooms toward the Orlando Pirates' stadium to demonstrate, only to be shot by the police. To outsiders, Soweto became not a place but a symbol.

But when we take a walk in the morning, we see that it is also a place where more than 1 million people live. The government-built uniformity has worn out. Years of additions to houses, landscaping, and construction of fences and walls create the feel of an African suburb. There are people walking in the streets, a great, high, wide-open sky, a view of the veld. Much is new: streetlights, traffic lights—robots, South Africans call them—because now Sowetans own cars. Unemployment here is estimated to be as high as 60 percent, much of the housing is still corrugated tin shanties, and crime is rampant. But the government complex where people once had to renew the hated passes now distributes pensions to senior citizens. These days, Soweto has a mall, a big hotel, and a gleaming calabash-shaped stadium, where the opening game of the World Cup is to be played.

Sibongile and Jimmy, the proprietors of our bed-and-breakfast, live in the house Sibongile's parents first inhabited in the 1930s.

"We have seen two worlds," Jimmy said. "The world of apartheid and the world that came after."

Everything about the old South Africa was racially segregated, said Sibongile. Rugby was the white game, while soccer was for blacks, and for the most part, the races did not play in the same stadiums or attend each other's matches. So she is thrilled to see so many whites come to Soweto for the World Cup. This is the future, she says—despite the pain of the past and problems of the present. "For our grandchildren, it will go right."

In the afternoon, as I stand outside the B&B, boys come by, kicking a soccer ball and blowing a green vuvuzela. "Who is your No. 1 team?" the biggest of them asks.

Most of my travel has been as a reporter covering politics, terrorism, war—hard topics that make people cagey. Talking about soccer with these boys is totally different. Here, to them, I am a sports fan who loves what they love, too.

In the airport en route to South Africa I'd felt awkward standing around with the elites of Mexico and Brazil in their sombreros and jerseys, waiting for flights that had cost thousands of dollars to go to a poor country to spend thousands more dollars to watch soccer. It seemed like a niche extravagance, a rite of young men of means. But here, for a minute, it also feels simple: a way to connect instantly with anyone, anywhere.

Marcel and I watch the opening game in a Soweto restaurant, sharing our table with several South Africans, one of whom literally falls out of his seat with glee when Bafana Bafana scores against Mexico. Some 86 percent of the country's TV sets are tuned to the game—a record—though nobody we meet in Soweto has tickets to the stadiums. Afterward, we stop by the Shoprite grocery store and stumble upon a pre-celebration celebration of people picking up ingredients for the night's parties. The supermarket radio pipes in South African pop, and women dance by the meat counter. I feel people's gazes on me and Marcel: curious, quickly smiling and looking away. One boy blows his vuvuzela with his right hand while he grabs a bag of frozen McCain french fries with his left. Others hold a kind of vuvuzela-off from one checkout line to another, each trying to out-trumpet the next.

The South African team had only managed a tie. But for perhaps the first time, the people of Soweto know that the world is looking at them and seeing fun instead of politics or trouble. That night, I fall asleep to the sound of a steady swarm of bees—near and distant vuvuzelas.

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