World Cup soccer matches allow Johannesburg to update its risky reputation

By Christopher Vourlias
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's a Sunday afternoon in Soweto, Johannesburg's most famous -- and, often, infamous -- township, and the line at the door is growing. Township youths in baggy shorts and Steve Biko T-shirts; black sophisticates from the northern suburbs; skinny girls in skinny jeans; a handful of flushed white faces.

Somewhere behind the scenes, a young Zimbabwean hustler named Beni is wondering what happened to Tumi. The name ripples through the crowd. Has anyone seen Tumi? Tumi, one of South Africa's biggest hip-hop stars, is the day's main act. But he seems to be the only one who hasn't made it to the party.

It could be a scene from any club in any city on the planet: an anxious promoter, a missing headliner, a grumbling audience. But we haven't come to some hip new nightspot to plunk down our hard-earned rands. We're standing outside a very pleasant home in a very pleasant Sowetan suburb named Rockville. Sofas and armchairs are arranged on the lawn; so is a white catering tent, beneath which a local DJ, Medicine, is spinning American hip-hop, old-school R&B and Afrobeat for the increasingly restless crowd. In the garage, local chef Obi Lepile has set up an impromptu kitchen, where he's whipping up a three-course meal for the guests. It's a typically Joburg party: one part improvisation, two parts elbow grease and a whole lot of hustle.

That this crowd has gathered in Soweto shouldn't be surprising. Suburbs such as Rockville and Orlando West are increasingly drawing middle-class black professionals to what was once a notorious township (an area set aside for nonwhites during the apartheid era). While many parts of Soweto are still plagued by poverty and violence, the prosperity that has trickled down to these suburbs offers a glimpse of hope in a city where, 16 years after the collapse of apartheid, the fruits of black majority rule often remain elusive. Driving through the streets of Rockville on our way to the concert, we passed row after row of tidy brick cottages -- a small garden in front, a satellite dish on the roof -- that suggested a new and promising chapter in the long and checkered history of Soweto.

It is a microcosm, perhaps, of Johannesburg as a whole, a city whose tarnished reputation tends to obscure a broader transformation in recent years. More than a decade after the flight of businesses to the affluent northern suburbs crippled the city's downtown area, much of the inner city is being reclaimed. The historic Newtown district has been revived as a thriving cultural precinct. Across the broad span of the Nelson Mandela Bridge, galleries and trendy bistros are moving into the Braamfontein neighborhood. The city's much-maligned public transport system is getting an upgrade, with the introduction of a rapid-rail network and new bus lines connecting some of the more far-flung suburbs. Guardedly optimistic, city officials are hoping that the World Cup, which opens here on June 11, will finally herald Johannesburg's arrival on the global stage.

In Soweto, the arrival of Tumi is equally anticipated. By the time the rapper takes the stage, he's two hours late -- just on time, if you set your clock to Joburg's rhythms. The crowd, having long since given itself over to the bar, is in a forgiving mood. The air is kinetic.

"There's so much creative energy, so many things happening in this city," says a young Frenchwoman, shouting to be heard over the music.

"I feel like Joburg's time is now."

* * *

What makes a city world-class?

The question was posed earlier this year in a newspaper interview with Amos Masondo, the mayor of Johannesburg, as his city and country prepared to host the World Cup. A journalist from the Sunday Times took Masondo to task for his aggressive campaign touting the city as "world-class."

What about the potholes? the reporter asked. The broken traffic lights? The litter? The lack of public transport? Masondo objected: He himself rode public buses once a year, he said, to lead by example. And besides, he added, the city had a vision statement and a 30-year plan. If Johannesburg wasn't a world-class city yet, it was "definitely moving in that direction."

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