A World Cup primer for South Africa

Ah, the World Cup.

This is the point where I’m supposed to write something like, “Every four years the world comes together in an event that stops global production, and unifies cultures like never before,” or something similarly trite. But anyone who watches the World Cup—which is most of the world excluding vast swathes of the United States and Canada—knows that it is a beast that starts and stops wars, ruins careers, makes Christ-like heroes, enthralls criminals and entrepreneurs, and ignites the flame of desire in millions of children and young adults.

And, every four years, the beast morphs into some new type of creature, dependent upon where it calls “home”—United States, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Japan/Korea, France . . . and now South Africa. In the bidding for 2010, eventual winner South Africa was still considered a real gamble: rife with racial tension, possessing a high crime and murder rate (Johannesburg is one of the murder capitals of the world), economically unstable with a disparate proportion of the poor, and largely inaccessible to the middle classes of the world that want to fly and participate in the festivities.

But, in all honesty, that type of thinking is largely what put African Union countries in the back seat of world politics, and, dare I say it, racist tendencies from Euro- and Latin-centered soccer (or football, if you will). South Africa, it can be argued, has been defying conventional wisdom and naysayers. Even though 70,000 construction workers went on strike one year ago, the host cities of Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Polokwane, Rustenburg, and Nelspruit still completed or upgraded their stadiums that seat anywhere from 43,500 in Mbombela Stadium, to more than 91,000 in Soccer City, which will be filled to capacity in the first and final matches. The ticketing glitches have been fixed—originally most of the local populace didn’t have access to tickets, since they were sold exclusively online, and Internet access is not commonplace. Instead of seeing racial tensions rise, the country has been experiencing a racial and cultural renaissance of sorts. Although there are several problems on the horizon, we have several unique moments in history to look forward to. Here is a list of some things to look for, good or bad, that may define this World Cup and make it unique to South Africa:

1. Sex trafficking and AIDS – Prostitution exists at all World Cups, no matter the venue, but this year the world has made an unprecedented push to curb sex trafficking, since there is already a problem endemic to urban areas of South Africa like Cape Town. According to one report, an estimated 38,000 children each year are forced into prostitution in South Africa, and the World Cup is supposed to make that number grow exponentially. Additionally, AIDS rates are reported to be higher in South Africa than anywhere else in the continent—12% or 5.7 million out of 48 million people. Additionally, only 28% of AIDS patients were receiving anti-retroviral treatment.

2. The Vuvuzela – If you get annoyed at Korea’s “thundersticks,” England’s bawdy chants and songs, or Brazil’s drums, you may as well avoid the South African venues entirely, thanks to a relatively new invention called the vuvuzela, a plastic horn that, when played en masse, sounds like a deafening buzz. Collectively played, it has been measured at 140 decibels—louder than a jet engine. As reported on Smithsonianmag.com, “You can walk around with a pretty massive headache if you’re not wearing earplugs,” said John Nauright, professor of sports management at George Mason University. There are currently 600,000 more on order from the traditional maker of the horns.

3. The match of Mexico vs. South Africa – Speaking of volume, the World Cup kicks off in Soccer City stadium June 11 at 10 a.m. in front of 91,000 fans, many of them toting zuzuvelas, amplified with the horn-toting Mexican fans, which is sure to be a cacophonous train wreck of noise. On the field, however, is sure to be one of the most watched World Cup games. The country and the continent will be tuned into televisions and radios to see if the underdogs and hosts Bafana Bafana can stave off the young and lightning-fast Mexicans, which feature the likes of Gio de los Santos, a 20-year old that can run circles around the midfielders and defensemen of RSA. The match is considered to be the defining moment for the host country, which stands a strong chance at being eliminated in the first round.

4. The Africa contingent – Although Africa had five representatives in 2002 and 2006, this year they have six, and only one of them, Algeria, is overwhelmingly considered to exit in the first round. But this year the crowd’s fervor might very well be a deciding factor for teams Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, and South Africa.

5. Crime – Because of a mixture of industrialization and a high crime rate, you might run into signs that warn of “high risk of carjacking” in areas of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Port Elizabeth. Also unique to South Africa is the propensity of armed gangs that rob patrons in restaurants, forcing local governments to install “caution areas” for restaurants. More disturbingly, however, the United Nations ranked South Africa No. 1 in rapes and violent sexual assaults, stating that three in 4,000 women had been raped in the past year, and the BBC reported that one in four South African men said they had raped someone at some point; many of them said they have raped on more than one occasion. Johannesburg, in an effort to reduce crime leading up to the World Cup, enlisted famed former mayor Rudy Giuliani to aid them with city planning and urban crime fighting. Additionally, as if to accentuate the point, a journalist and two others were robbed at gunpoint north of Johannesburg on June 9, two days before the first kickoff.

6. Racial unity? – Not until 1994 and the election of Nelson Mandela was apartheid considered to be in a state of total decline and reform. That being said, the culture of racial disparity has been quite alive and well, causing serious issues that the world has taken note of. Recently, RSA leaders urged peace and patience after popular white supremacist and Afrikaner Eugene Terre’Blanche was killed. Racism is accused from both black and white communities, with whites blaming President Zuma for bigotry, and blacks claiming that whites still flex a veritable chokehold on agriculture, keeping millions of blacks impoverished. However, with the arrival of the World Cup, hundreds of thousands of citizens have found employment, and they have also been purchasing tickets in droves. This time, blacks and whites will be sitting together in the stands, blowing their horns, and uniting in national pride against the competition—which will be, in their first-round showcase, Mexico, Uruguay, and France.


Author John Nauright has written a thorough examination of the history of sport in South Africa and the role it has played in shaping the country’s identity. Long Run to Freedom: Sport, Cultures and Identities in South Africa, published by Fitness Information Technology, also touches on the potential implications hosting the World Cup will have on a nation that continues its transformation from an apartheid society to one deemed worthy of hosting the World Cup.


You can listen to Nauright and a panel of experts discuss all things World Cup from KCRW’s June 9 “To the Point” program by clicking here. The portion of the program discussing the World Cup begins at the 23:30 mark.

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