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World Cup soccer matches allow Johannesburg to update its risky reputation

In Yeoville, where candy-colored art decos, rundown shebeens (local bars), green parks and abandoned lots all clamor for space, you can see this city's mixed character and fortunes on an afternoon stroll. In the 1970s and '80s, young bohemian residents flocked to Yeoville. Even before the fall of apartheid, it was one of Johannesburg's most progressive and tolerant neighborhoods; Roux's parents lived here more than two decades ago, giving her a personal stake in the area.

With the end of apartheid, when a period of lawlessness sent the city center into a tailspin, Yeoville declined dramatically. Most of the restaurants and nightclubs along its famous Rockey Street were abandoned and boarded up. Only in the past few years has the neighborhood begun to rebuild. Today, Roux sees it as a symbol of hope and renewal for the city.

"A lot of the perception of downtown is based on how it was 15 years ago," she says. "But things are always changing in Joburg."

For the past year, Roux has been cataloguing the stories of immigrants in Yeoville as part of a research project on the changing faces of Johannesburg. An Ethiopian friend once told her a story about three young men he met sitting in a park. They were tired, bedraggled, gaunt, dressed in rags. They had just arrived from Addis Ababa, Ethiopa, they explained -- a months-long trek they'd accomplished mostly on foot.

"It's incredible what people will do to get here," says Roux.

* * *

"How can you love what changes too swiftly," wrote the poet Abrahams, "too swiftly changes and changes again?"

Johannesburg is a city in transition; like the thousands of minibus-taxis that clog its streets, it's moving quickly, often dangerously, and with no guarantee of a safe arrival. For many residents, though, the risks of Joburg -- a city with no brakes -- are part of the thrill.

"It's exciting to be in a place that's constantly changing," says a young filmmaker, Stephen Abbott, one night in the artsy suburb of Melville. "We're writing our most checkered history right now." The nation might be mired in a political crisis, and President Jacob Zuma might seem like the wayward captain of a rudderless ship, but the transformation Abbott has seen in the past decade, with the gradual integration of once-white suburbs, is, he says, a tangible thing.

"It's a slow process," he says, "but we're getting there."

Across South Africa, the process has been too slow for many. Growing discontent among the ranks of poor blacks has led to cracks in the ruling African National Congress; the promises of the post-apartheid era have rung increasingly hollow. A writer I meet at a Melville bar insists that "the only way to move forward is to create black companies and entrepreneurs." In that regard, he says, the country is failing.

"There are very few black entrepreneurs coming through the cracks," he says.

Yet despite the hand-wringing -- almost a competitive sport in South Africa -- there is a sense of cautious optimism in this city. For better or for worse, the bright lights of the World Cup will be arriving in a matter of weeks. Security will be unprecedented; the hope is that the foreigners pouring into Joburg will be able to forget their fears for just long enough to appreciate Africa's most vibrant, colorful, energetic metropolis. The vuvuzela horns will be out; the braai (South African barbecues) will be readied. Whether an Afrikaans jol (party) or a Zulu phuza (drink), it will be a celebration for this city and country to rally around.

And when the tourists return to their northern climes -- whether with tales of woe or with optimism for South Africa's rising star -- they'll leave Johannesburg to the poets, the chancers, the searchers and the dreamers who give this young city of gold its shine.

One afternoon, I meet two boys in moth-eaten sweaters standing in the flow of pedestrian traffic in Newtown. Their names are Aaron and Innocent; they are students from the Veritus Secondary School, in Meadowlands, a suburb of Soweto, fundraising to buy new uniforms for their soccer team. They unfold a weathered sheet of paper where just two names, both "Anonymous," are written alongside contributions for five and 10 rands (about $.66 and $1.32, respectively). I hand them a small donation and ask about their team. They have four wins and two draws in seven matches -- not the best in the league, they say, but enough to keep them near the top of the table.

Innocent runs a finger along the frayed seam of his sweater. He is a striker, he says, and has already scored four goals this season. He wants to be a soccer player or a journalist -- he hasn't decided. He kicks at his shadow, scuffed shoes biting into his sockless ankles, and looks me in the eye.

"Next time you see me, it will be on the big screen," he says.

Vourlias is living in Johannesburg and working on his first book.

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