World Cup Jitters: Excitement and Tension Run High in South Africa

By Karl-Ludwig Günsche in Cape Town

Only days before the start of the World Cup, South Africans seem as anxious about the planet's biggest soccer festival as they are excited. In a torn country, threats of strikes and uprisings by the poor have put a damper on euphoria. Some groups may use the spectacle to further their own interests.

South Africa's stores are stocked with World Cup paraphernalia and the euphoria can be felt in major cities. But leaders in Pretoria are nervous about the biggest event in the country since the end of apartheid. Zoom
REUTERS

South Africa's stores are stocked with World Cup paraphernalia and the euphoria can be felt in major cities. But leaders in Pretoria are nervous about the biggest event in the country since the end of apartheid.

Peter is a gas station attendant in Springbok, the capital of South Africa's Namaqualandes region, which is famous for its wildflowers. It's only a short distance from the border with Namibia, but you get the first sense here of the football fever that's about to explode across the nation. Hardly any flags can be seen, only a few fans have decorated the mirrors of their cars in the country's colors, and there aren't many people passing through with Bafana-Bafana shirts -- Springbok is not like the big cities.

But Peter managed to get a ticket for the preliminary match between the South African national team and Uruguay on June 16 in Pretoria. "It almost ruined me financially," he says, "and I had to stand in line for a long time. But I want to be there no matter what."

On June 12, he plans to drive with two friends in a beat-up old Toyota to Loftus Vesfeld Stadium in the capital city, a trip that will take three days. "I believe our boys can go far if we just give them enough support," the hopeful young gas station attendant says. For him it's a matter of honor to pack a vuvuzela in his suitcase -- the horn prevalent with South African soccer fans that German national team trainer Joachim Löw has described as "a little irritating over time."

The host country of the 2010 World Cup is completing the last preparations for the mass football festival. The event itself is a breakthrough for South Africa, but it's also been pitched as a harbinger for a new and better future. These are the African games -- meant to liberate the whole continent from an image of war, chaos, illness and catastrophe.

"A victory for the entire continent," is what FIFA head Sepp Blatter called it when he announced in 2004 that the games would be awarded to South Africa. Nelson Mandela had tears of joy in his eyes as he proudly held up the cup, saying, "I feel like a 15-year-old."

'Let Them, Just for Four Weeks, Be Good'

On the streets of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, one can feel some of the euphoria that sent the country into a frenzy of joy after the decision six years ago. Supermarkets are decked in the national flag, workers wear South Africa T-shirts, sales of vuvuzelas are booming.

The stadiums have been completed, new hotels and streets have been built. Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato has pledged to host the "greatest party in South African history" the night before opening match. But a number of cars on the streets also have bumper stickers reading, "Fuck FIFA."

Tension and expectations have mixed with quiet fears that the football dream could become a nightmare. Even South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, seems not entirely free of anxiety. At a women's prayer meeting last Thursday he said: "In this time, we need good South Africans. Let them, just for four weeks, be good. Just for four weeks."

He has good reason to be concerned. Despite the flags and the gorgeous stadiums, the new streets and well-armed police, his country is more divided than ever in recent history. No nation in the world has a gulf between rich and poor as great as South Africa's.

Despite billions of euros in investments related to the 2010 World Cup, last year more than a million South Africans lost their jobs. During the first three months of this year, 171,000 entered the unemployment rolls. The official unemployment rate is over 25 percent, the highest level seen in the past five years. Unofficially, it is estimated to be closer to 40 percent.

A recent study completed by the University of South Africa concluded that 75.4 percent of South Africans fall below the poverty level -- and almost all those poor are black. "Persistent poverty, rising levels of unemployment and violent crime, together with the crisis in the public health sector," writes Amnesty International in its annual report, have contributed at least as much as corruption and nepotism to the often violent protests that have recently shaken South Africa.

Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of former South African President Thabo Mbeki, recently said: "Unlike the elite in Asia, our leaders have simply copied the exploitation mentality of their former oppressors."

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