Global spotlight shines on South Africa as 2010 World Cup set to kick off

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; D01

JOHANNESBURG -- From the moment South Africa was awarded the 2010 World Cup five years ago, there has been far more at stake than soccer. In being chosen to host the world's biggest sporting event, South Africa seized the global spotlight for good reasons rather than bad.

It won an opportunity, for four weeks this summer, to showcase its young democracy and the bonds that bind this improbable Rainbow Nation together.

And it won the chance to prove doubters wrong and change perceptions of a country that less than 20 years ago was deemed a global pariah, banned from the World Cup and Olympic Games because of its policy of racial discrimination known as apartheid.

"Ke Nako," as the 2010 World Cup slogan says. "It's Time."

That time comes Friday, when the 2010 World Cup kicks off at Johannesburg's Soccer City, a 94,700-seat sporting palace constructed on the outskirts of Soweto, the township that galvanized the resistance movement following the slaughter of a still-disputed number of students as they marched in protest of apartheid's dictates.

For millions of soccer fans, the most pressing questions of the 2010 World Cup revolve around the traditional powers. Can England's Wayne Rooney control his temper? Could Argentina's Lionel Messi truly be the best ever? Can any nation match the brilliance that is Brazil?

Closer to home, America's faithful hope their squad can reclaim the momentum it had in 2002 when the United States reached the World Cup's round of 16, only to backslide four years later, sent packing from Germany after the first round.

But among 49 million joyful South Africans, all hope rides on Bafana Bafana ("The Boys"), the country's national team that may well not have made the 32-team tournament had it not been guaranteed a berth as host. Nonetheless, under a stylish and stern Brazilian coach, the world's No. 83-ranked Bafana Bafana seem primed to shock in Friday's opener against Mexico, having played 12 consecutive tune-up matches without a loss.

But no figure will stand as tall in the hearts and minds of South Africans during this World Cup than former president Nelson Mandela, the Nobel laureate and beloved patriarch of the nation, who is expected to attend Friday's opening match, at 91, despite frailty and failing health. "Everyone feels like where he is, there is peace," said Noble Nkiwane, 32, a restaurant worker in Johannesburg. "Where he is, there is success."

In Soweto on Thursday, a steady stream of visitors filed through the cramped one-story brick house that served as Mandela's home before and, for a brief time, following the 27 years he spent in prison, convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life for his efforts to dismantle apartheid.

No. 8115 Vilakazi Street is a house like any other in the township, shoe-horned between its neighbors on a postage stamp-size plot of land. The roof is corrugated tin; the floor is stone. And the street is unremarkable but for the fact that it's the world's only street to be called home by two Nobel laureates (Archbishop Desmond Tutu being the other).

Mandela's house served as a hub of activity throughout the resistance movement. A coal stove heated the living room. And his children grew up to the sound of banging on the door at night, flashes of light trough the windows and urgent voices outside. Traces of two firebomb attacks linger in the charred bricks outside; other bricks bear the nicks of bullets.

Soweto was established in the early 1900s expressly to keep Johannesburg's black workers apart from white residents. The population swelled to 1 million as apartheid forcibly removed non-whites from their homes to the South-Western Townships, renamed "Soweto" for expediency.

And it was here, amid the squalor of cramped shanties, that 3,000 Sowetans in 1955 adopted the Freedom Charter, which declared that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people."

Such views made criminals of those who espoused them. Eight years later, Mandela was jailed.

New South Africa dawned the day Mandela was freed from jail in 1990. And his immediate and insistent calls for peace and reconciliation kept the nation from imploding.

"He was a godsend," said Cape Town native Derick Gideons, 42, who credits his life's achievements, graduating from law school and starting a bio-fuels business, to Mandela. "He bridges everything -- not only intellectually, but spiritually. He is our conscience."

And as the 2010 World Cup opens, South Africans are looking to Mandela once again.

"He brought us together as one," said Prince Nxumal, 24, of Johannesburg. "Black and white, we are equal. If he comes [to Friday's World Cup opener], I believe we are going to win."

The opening of the World Cup has not come with out its critics, who say it has exposed the gap between rich and poor.

President Jacob Zuma's government has spent billions on stadiums and infrastructure improvements and says the spending will create jobs and raise the overall standard of living. Many of the poor, however, say they expect their lives to change little.

Human rights campaigners say South African authorities have forcibly moved thousands of impoverished residents from areas near a new $450 million stadium in Cape Town to present a good image to the world, a charge Cape Town city council officials deny.

Traffic-choked Johannesburg has a new, high-speed commuter train as a result of the World Cup, as well as networks of new highways and nine impressive soccer venues in 10 cities across the country.

But need, for the most part, is more evident than affluence. Street after street is lined with houses that are sub-standard, lawns that are more dirt than grass. Yet asked what the township needed most on the eve of the World Cup, Innocent Dube, 57, a resident since 1982, spoke only with pride.

"The community is strong now," Dube said. "It needs the people to stay together. No black; no white. South Africa is happy with this World Cup. It is proud it has power. We didn't see such a thing as this before."

Staff writer Sudarsan Raghavan in Delft, South Africa, contributed to this report.

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