Commentary

South Africans insist they will be ready

Updated: August 6, 2009, 5:26 PM ET
By Bob Ley | ESPN

SOWETO, South Africa -- The girl, just several steps off the tour bus full of English rugby fans, can't be older than 15 or 16. She still is cradling her catered lunch in her hands when she is startled by the image.

"Oh, my God," she says.

Here, at the Hector Peterson Memorial in Soweto, is a larger-than-life-size replica of the photograph that galvanized public opinion around the world.

Hector Peterson Memorial
Bob LeyThis photograph of Hector Peterson, who was killed in the Soweto uprising in 1976, was taken by Sam Nzima, a photographer at the time for a newspaper in Johannesburg. It is on display as part of the Hector Peterson Memorial in Soweto, South Africa.

This memorial is sacred ground to black South Africans, commemorating the 13-year-old Peterson -- just one of many youths to die in Soweto in June 1976. Many of them were wearing school uniforms, defending themselves with trash can covers against police bullets. Tens of thousands of youngsters, many without informing their parents, had massed to march and protest the apartheid government's edict that they be instructed in Afrikaans, the language associated with the oppressive government at that time.

The girl, fresh off the bus, her face still full of anguish, stares at the photograph -- a mortally wounded Peterson, perhaps just three years younger than she is, being carried by another youth, Mbuyisa Makhubo, while Peterson's panicked sister runs by their side.

The Hector Peterson Memorial sees a constant stream of tour buses that disgorge crowds of mainly white tourists on mild winter afternoons and is just one of the startling reminders of the past that can be found in the nation preparing to welcome the world for the 2010 World Cup.

I encountered another reminder the day before, 800 miles to the southwest. It was the Fourth of July, and high atop Signal Hill in Cape Town, the day was a glorious aberration of warm midday sun and mild breezes. From that height, there was a marvelously unobstructed view down to the controversial waterfront Green Point soccer stadium, which had been the focus of local opposition and court battles. It likely will be the last stadium completed for next year's World Cup.

"There, look out there," said Chris, our driver and, yes, security man. He pointed beyond the stadium and up beyond the harbor. "Robben Island."

Far beyond the stadium, where modern South African monied interests collided over aesthetics and property values, sits the infamous island penitentiary where political prisoners were kept, in some cases for decades. Even a casual observer of history knows this is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

To absorb that, on Independence Day, was chilling.

Will the nation be ready?

It is impossible to contemplate the future of South Africa -- the next year in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup -- without considering this nation's past.

South Africa fell just one vote short of winning the right to host the 2006 World Cup. FIFA's decision to award the 2010 tournament to South Africa was seen in many quarters as an inspired and idealistic political decision but a naive logistical choice. Thirty-two national teams, a half-million visitors, the world's media and corporate interests all to be moved about as chess pieces across the landscape of a country struggling to provide necessities to all its citizens.

"In Germany [at the 2006 World Cup], you could get from one venue to whichever other one in two hours," one veteran American broadcast executive says. "In South Africa, it could take two days."

Ramsamy
Bob LeySam Ramsamy, who led an anti-apartheid sports campaign while in exile in London, is now a member of the IOC executive committee.

That hard-headed and understandable forecast might just be foundering on the late, closing kick of a national effort to prove the cynics wrong.

"I can assure you, South Africa will be ready," Sam Ramsamy says. It is hardly the first time he has answered that question. As former head of the South African Olympic Committee, Ramsamy, a member of the International Olympic Committee's Executive Committee, is well-schooled in the nuance and necessity of global sporting politics.

"To some extent, we don't have the Anglo-Saxon attitude of getting things ready well in advance," he says. "And that's important for us, because if the stadiums were ready right now, it means maintaining them all."

That raises the question of what the nation will do with its 10 new or improved stadiums once the world moves on after next summer, but it's a window into the African mindset. And part of that is, in a polite way, defensive.

"There's a certain degree of skepticism about our country," says Ramsamy, who led the international sports boycott of South Africa through two decades in exile in the 1970s and '80s. "We're a developing country, and the literate world always looks at us as, 'They're not capable of doing things. They don't have the capacity.' It's a prejudice, and prejudices can only die when we do certain things right."

The question of readiness doesn't bother Danny O'Sullivan. South Africans talk to each other on his national talk radio show. In the early days of majority rule, in the mid-1990s, his program was credited by some with providing a vital place for pressure and controversy to be bled off.

Cape Town Stadium
Bob LeyCape Town stadium, seen from atop Signal Hill, will likely be the last stadium finished, perhaps early next year.

"But I do hate the question of readiness when it's phrased in a sense of -- you expect the answer to be, 'Well, they are never going to be ready.' No, we're not ready right now," he says. "But apart from Beijing and those Olympic Games, which other host city of a big international sporting event was ready a year ahead of the event? The answer is none."

O'Sullivan, a white South African, has seen his listener demographics shift over the years. Since radio stations were privatized in post-apartheid South Africa during the late 1990s, the portion of his audience comprised of black South Africans has climbed from one-third to nearly two-thirds.

And he's watched and listened to the evolution in the national conversation on soccer -- as in, what to present to the world as the face of South Africa.

"I didn't know what it would mean, to have a South African World Cup," O'Sullivan says. "It took the Confederations Cup to show me. And it's probably symbolized in one thing: the vuvuleza. That trumpet."

The omnipresent horn was the unrelenting bass line of the Confederations Cup sound track in June, a never-ending bleating that drove Western ears batty and led European broadcasters to complain to the lords of FIFA, seeking to ban the vuvuleza from next summer's World Cup.

Don't expect it.

First, FIFA's Sepp Blatter, who championed the South African World Cup bid, has been vocal in defending the horns as part of the texture of the first African World Cup. More importantly, according to O'Sullivan, attitudes on the vuvuleza, once split down racial lines, have evolved.

"White people used to say, 'We don't like the vuvuleza,'" O'Sullivan says. "Black people, well what do you think?" Traditionally, soccer crowds in South Africa were nearly all black. "Now," says O'Sullivan, "the racial attitudes have tipped. The Confederations Cup comes to an end, white people are now going to football matches, experiencing the vibe of a football match, and say, 'I like the vuvuleza.'"

Divides remain

The vuvuleza is responsible for our driver and security man in Johannesburg veering off his unnatural Zen calm. He is a former policeman, now working in the burgeoning private security industry, and for days, he has been our man in Joburg. One glimpse into his psyche: His cell phone ring tone is the theme song from the epic shoot-em-up spaghetti western "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

Soccer City
Bob LeyA campaign poster for newly elected President Jacob Zuma remains outside Soccer City stadium.

On our way from one appointment to another in Soweto, we spy a group of youngsters playing soccer -- and with them, two young men playing homemade vuvulezas, about 6 feet long. The TV gene takes over. We have to get that shot. So we ask our driver to stop the vehicle, and we pile out.

This is unlike any other neighborhood we have seen during our several visits to Soweto. Here, in this patch of land between two hostels, our usually placid driver is suddenly nervous. "Over there," he says, gesturing to the far side of the road, "used to be the ANC [African National Congress] guys, and over here, the UDF [United Democratic Front], and they each had a chief in their neighborhood. They would raid each other, with horrible violence and atrocities. And if the chief didn't like what he saw in the area, it became very dangerous."

OK. I get it. Ahead, I see our local producer and our cameraman shaking hands with an adult, a church elder, who essentially gives us permission to tape this little impromptu soccer scrimmage and the vuvuleza chorus. We have a little time.

Behind us, a group of men stands against the wall of an old building. They stare. Not the usual friendly greeting we had received wherever we met with South Africans. They are more wary. The history of the area hangs in the air, and our driver is on edge.

Within 15 minutes, we are on our way, having gained some footage for our show and some personal experience in how to make our way around Johannesburg.

Crime is a huge concern for the upcoming World Cup. Statistics suggest South African cities might be the most dangerous in the world. One afternoon in Soweto, while I am chatting with one man, another joins our conversation. "Yeah, I got robbed on the taxi yesterday," he says, matter of factly. "Did he have a weapon?" his friend asks. "No," the other says, somewhat sheepishly. "What was he, Superman?" the first chides. The clear implication: fight back.

World Cup tourists will not take the legendarily overcrowded van taxis that provide Soweto residents their transportation. But that casual anecdote illustrates the daily issue of crime. Aside from our ill-advised stop in one area, we had no problems in our week traveling throughout Johannesburg or during a side trip to Cape Town.

But the concentration of wealth among the few has created a nation of walls. Homes, especially in the more affluent areas of Johannesburg, sit behind walls often topped by electrified fencing. In the most affluent areas north of the city, the walls are 8 feet high and armored, topped by electrified fencing, and there is 24-hour private security on duty in front. These neighborhoods are somewhat racially mixed, where so-called "black diamonds," or black African capitalists who have mastered this new system, make their homes. The irony is that their hard-earned palatial residences are not even visible behind the fortresses of security.

Talking soccer

Less than an hour's drive from the gleaming commercial and residential centers of Rosebank and Sandton sits Soweto, where the national unemployment picture is clearly illustrated. Men and women sit outside during the middle of the day, walk down the street and do anything but work. The universally scorned "official" unemployment rate of 25 percent seems, to the eye, to be closer to one expert's estimate of 40 percent.

On a weekday afternoon, it's not hard to gather a group of school kids on holiday, along with young adults unable to find work. We gather to talk soccer, and there's plenty to discuss.

"Soccer is a way of life," one tall, young man says. "It's big, it's very important, it's one big business, and even for people here it's personal, it's emotional, it's spiritual."

The group of young men pulses with excitement over the recent play of Bafana Bafana, the South African national team, and the promise of next year's World Cup. But soon the conversation leaves their beloved football behind, to consider what the arrival of the World Cup will mean for them.

"I don't think the jobs and the facilities being built will have much to do with our day-to-day lives," says another fan of the national team. "We know how it feels to be here every day, and we know that the impression the world has about Soweto is that it's people running with guns and crime."

A corporate effort is under way to leave a legacy of sports facilities to South Africa after the Cup. It undoubtedly is well intentioned and has some advertised successes. But here, in the Meadowlands district of Soweto, these youngsters have gathered in the shadow of a local school that does not even have a soccer field. Usually, all you need for that is 110-by-70 yards of dirt and grass.

[+] EnlargeLucas Radebe
Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesLucas Radebe, seen in a 1998 World Cup match, says hosting the World Cup is a dream come true for South Africa.

"All of these things are going to pass after the World Cup, and the money coming in just to make the streets look better, and the stadium look good, and for people to say that it looks like Germany here," one young fan says, laughing. "But we're not eating like Germans; we're starving out here."

Had Lucas Radebe been walking down that dusty street, he would have been mobbed. He is a national sports icon, born and raised in Soweto. When he was in his teens, his parents sent him to live in a tribal homeland with relatives to avoid the pathology of the urban township. And still, as a man in his early 20s, Radebe was shot in the back while visiting Soweto in 1991. He recovered in time to debut with the national team, and went on to fashion a legendary career at Leeds United in the English Premier League and with Bafana Bafana.

Surrounded by South African soccer "journos" at a news conference, he is politely pummeled with questions about the national team's performance in the recent Confederations Cup. Yes, he says, he might consider coaching on the national team level. And yes, he says, they need mercurial striker Benni McCarthy brought back to the team to add scoring punch.

Radebe has been through so much in the past months -- the death of his wife from cancer, the loss of his father and a heart scare of his own. You would know none of this from his pleasant and almost regal bearing. He is well aware his words will make national headlines the next day, conscious of his place in the national sports fixture, confident of his opinions. The approaching World Cup, for him, will transcend the two in which he already has played for his nation.

"If you had told me as a young kid in the townships that we'd host a World Cup, I would have said you're talking rubbish," he says. "I don't know I would have believed it. You'd never have that thought of playing at the highest level. This is a dream come true. This means a lot, not only for our coming generations in this country, for the whole of Africa."

After the Cup

Xolela Mangcu's perspective spans several cultures. The political columnist and social commentator holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and has years of experience working in the United States.

Mangcu
Bob LeyXolela Mangcu, a social commentator and political columnist, says South Africa's deepest problems won't be solved by the World Cup coming to the country.

"Just because the majority of the people here are poor does not mean they are incapable of being happy," he says. "There's a very positive vibe about the World Cup in South Africa. The logistics around it are well developed. But it's not going to solve these deep structural problems that we have in society."

Mangcu wrote his doctoral dissertation on Harold Washington's rise as the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983, so he's well grounded in his native country, where one party -- the African National Congress -- has held political power since the arrival of democracy 15 years ago.

"I'm sure some good will come from the Cup, some jobs will be created," he says. "But the problem with events like this is that the hype tends to be much more than the reality. And when everybody's gone, then we're going to have to face the fact that it's not what it was promised to be, at least in terms of the social challenges."

Those challenges are immense. Privately, some whites bemoan the breakdown in the delivery of services and the chaos that marks some aspects of daily life, although no one pines for the return of the impractical and immoral folly of apartheid. There is tension in areas of the black townships where residents are being moved out of old housing, with the promise of new accommodations.

Promises often are an unredeemed currency, though.

The Soccer City stadium is modeled on a calabash, a traditional African bowl. The centerpiece stadium for the World Cup sits on a dusty plain near Soweto, its construction said to be on schedule. The 90,000-seat sports palace is being built by thousands of workers who have landed precious jobs in a struggling economy. (A week after our visit, these workers joined stadium workers throughout the nation in striking, seeking a 13 percent wage increase.)

Outside the construction fence, South Africa's economy of necessity has sprung up. Street vendors of all descriptions congregate to sell food and other necessities to workers. Yes, there's a canteen inside, we're told. But the workers want real food. They can find any assortment of it among the many tables and stalls outside the main construction entrance.

In a small group of workers, their experience on this job site ranges from two years to two days. The short-timer is a 24-year-old man who has found his first job ever.

"At least you've got something to eat so that you can help each other there at home," one worker says.

Says another, "At the end of the day, it's nice because I have something to give to my kids, I've got something to enjoy. At least I'm working. Life is easy."

The lure of tickets

One reason South Africa escaped so much of the global economic meltdown, one government official explains, is because so few South Africans have credit cards or bank accounts. A credit crunch means nothing to them. They live, to use the national phrase, for the pocket. If not day to day, then week to week.

Soccer
Funi MasindiBob Ley and a TV crew speak with workers outside Soccer City stadium being built near Soweto.

In that life, the promise of free World Cup tickets -- seemingly the ultimate prize -- falls somewhat hollow. FIFA and local organizers made that grand gesture, saying tens of thousands of workers would each receive a free ticket to a World Cup match. At the time, this past fall, the offer was seen as an incentive to finish the stadiums on time. Nearly a year later, the redemption of that promise seems surreal, if not impossible, to this small group of workers at Soccer City.

"Yeah, they promised us," a veteran worker says. "But we're not sure. They make empty promises, and you can't really rely on them."

Says another worker, "Maybe they are going to give tickets next year. Maybe others are already terminated and you're no longer here."

"Maybe they give the tickets to our foreman to give to us," the first man says, the global cynicism toward bosses mixing with the experience of life in South Africa. "He's going to keep it on his side and sell it to someone else. People work for their pocket. At the end of the day, he looks at his family."

Another worker mimes handing out tickets to his group: "They must come here -- those big heads who are in football -- and say, 'OK, we are here. Here are the constructors, here are the tickets.' Then we can believe it when you see it."

Will the ticket giveaway work?

Well, who thought the reality of a majority-rule South Africa would survive -- even thrive -- through 15 years? The nation's four peaceful presidential transitions are unprecedented in modern African history. By African standards, there is stability and prosperity.

Ascribe it to the genius of Nelson Mandela's message of reconciliation and forgiveness, or to the joint realization by all groups that wealth accumulated under the old system was too important to squander while fighting under new political rules, or to the daily expedience of needing to make it all work.

Back at the Hector Peterson Memorial, quiet running water slips over red marble and down the memorial's display, representing the blood spilled 33 years ago. This national landmark was a battleground on June 16, 1976.

Moss Tau
Bob LeySoweto resident Moss Tau witnessed the Soweto uprising in June 1976.

Moss Tau was there. He was a working man of 30 when he made the long trek over from another Soweto neighborhood, alerted to the news that tens of thousands of school children had marched to state their grievances and had been met by police bullets.

"It was flames, ambulances were just everywhere, sirens were on. It was mayhem and gunshots," says Tau, now a dignified man in his 60s, fresh from a church service next door where he sings in the choir.

"People running, children were being rushed to the hospital."

Was it more than students, I ask.

"Primarily students," he says, "but, then, I've lost a son, a cousin, a brother who was a student who was shot by police, what does that make me?"

No one will ever know the true death toll from that first day in Soweto -- perhaps several dozen, hundreds more the next day.

"I can't sit down and smile," Tau says. "So it was now the real beginning of true anger among the blacks."

We gaze across the memorial grounds at the running water and the white tourists and their buses, at the photograph of the mortally wounded Peterson being carried by Makhubo, a fellow student. Peterson died minutes later. Makhubo was forced to flee the country after the photograph acquired political currency. He was never seen again.

"That picture was splashed; it was a scoop for the newspapers," Tau says, his voice now more emotional.

"You out there in the world, that was the picture you captured, when the reality of apartheid started sinking into your heads about what was happening in South Africa."

He points, with emphasis, across the memorial. "It was the picture that shook the world, that picture, that picture over there," he says.

The picture, Tau's memories, the stream of tourists through the memorial -- all are parts of South Africa's past that will shape these next 12 months.

With the divisions and inequalities and imperfections of a new and raucous democracy, the wonder is that it all hangs together. It works. Perhaps, because it must.

And soon, the world will see for itself.

Bob Ley hosts ESPN's "Outside the Lines," which focuses on issues beyond the fields of play.

Bob Ley

OTL host, SportsCenter anchor, Soccer commentator
One of ESPN's originals, Bob Ley hosts ESPN's Outside the Lines series which focuses on issues beyond the field.