South Africa | At the top of our thoughts, near the bottom of the world

Home-based media might be South Africa organizers’ worst enemy. The headline splashed across the Cape Argus on Jun 20 appears less clear-cut the next day, when fear-mongering about safety in the Johannesburg area gave way to allegations that Egyptian players had been victimized by unscrupulous sex workers.

Earlier generations remind South Africans of resources that came to the fore when resisting apartheid. Sorarya Solomon, head of NICRO, a nationwide nongovernmental group that works to rehabilitate young offenders, points to 2010 as a source of hope for strengthening communities. During apartheid, she says, communities facilitated a network of safe houses. “If you were being chased by the apartheid police, you knew which home you could be safe in.”

Officials do not duck the paradox that affluence and tin-shack construction exist in proximity. Highway reconstruction from the Cape Town airport to downtown draws close to squatters’ settlements in plain view. “That is the reality of South Africa,” says the coordinator of World Cup preparations in Western Cape province, Laurine Platzky. She mentions forced migrations during apartheid and South Africa’s attraction to asylum seekers. She rejects that the shacks somehow be hidden from view. Yet earlier this month the Constitutional Court approved an order evicting 20,000 residents of the Joe Slovo settlement, what one of the advocates for the settlers, Sandra Liebenberg, calls the largest sanctioned eviction since apartheid. The positive side is that dwellers had access to the judicial system and a legal support network, rather than facing the uncompromising bulldozers that crunched their shacks with regularity in the early ’90s.

Novelist Bryan Rostron resists any attempt on South Africa’s part to pose as a “faux western nation.” “Evidence also suggests that Fifa wants SA to censor our poverty. … The question is: will we play along with this charade?”

The Cape Flats area, where the Joe Slovo homes are located, became a resettlement area during apartheid and also a home for grassroots soccer. Despite its association with township culture, soccer is no longer black only, with other sports showing signs of entering the mix. Welile Nhlapo, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, remembers brutal township soccer battles from his youth. “I got kicked,” he says. But now cricket is infiltrating urban squalor.

Nhlapo also studies how the various national teams render the gem of world anthems, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.” Watching the Springboks belt out the isiXhosa/isiZulu of the first stanza, which takes skill, Nhlapo says he understands how Nelson Mandela‘s embrace of the side at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, also in South Africa, helped make one country. The majority-white Springboks “have had to develop that sense of saying, ‘Here we are, we are South Africans. We belong,’ ” he says.

In contrast, Bafana Bafana, who play Brazil Thursday in one Confederations Cup semifinal, have used one white starter, Matthew Booth, in the tournament. But in the Western Cape, supporters of Ajax Cape Town are divided nearly evenly among the South African race categories of white, colored and African; 40 percent are women. According to Platzky, South Africa has 2.1 million white soccer fans, almost half the total white population.

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