CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — Cape Town, June 29, noon, and the streets are filling up with fans of Spain and Portugal wearing their scarves and wigs and jerseys, the national flags draped across their backs, faces painted. The vuvuzelas already blare, as they do almost every moment.
So let’s talk about the vuvuzelas. They are, indeed, a South African tradition, and there are some beauts — beaded and painted masterpieces. But Coca-Cola has got hold of them, too, and filled the Fan Fests — the giant outdoor viewing areas with the jumbotrons and music acts — with vuvuzelas bearing the Coke logo.
I am glad that FIFA President Sepp Blatter made the decision to let a thousand vuvuzelas blossom, or a million vuvuzelas blare, but the truth is that they are a one-note wall of sound blocking out all the other national chants and cheers and songs, and I am sorry about that. The vuvus only truly bother me, though, when someone blows one directly into my ear or fills a shuttle bus with the relentless mooing.
But that’s the only bad thing I have to say about being at the World Cup in South Africa. Without exception, the South Africans I have spoken to in my first week here are thrilled and proud of have the Cup here. They are excited to show off their country, to break the stereotypes their visitors have about their country and continent. And they want to talk about soccer. Taxi drivers compare Messi to Ronaldo. Grocery clerks want to tell me why the English will never win the Cup. Waiters want to analyze last night’s game and predict tomorrow’s.
South Africans flock to the Fan Fests and the games themselves to watch, taking their children who have the month out of school for the Cup. My family and I saw two games in the gorgeous lowveld town of Nelspruit, nestled in a familiar Blue Ridge, and South African fans filled half the seats at both games. We saw Australia vs. Serbia, and the Aussies brought thousands of rowdy fans with them. We also saw North Korea vs. Ivory Coast, and we could spot nary a North Korea fan in the stadium full of South African’s who roared for the Elephants.
Can I admit that, as a fan of U.S. soccer, I was not unhappy when we lost to Ghana? True, when Landon Donovan scored the miracle goal to beat Algeria and put us through, my boys and I made a flesh pile in our hotel room. But here in Africa the desire, the need, for an African team to make good in this African World Cup is a very powerful force. Other than U.S. fans, I didn’t see or hear a soul pulling for our team. When Ghana won — and wasn’t it a glorious goal in the overtime? — Cape Town’s Long Street filled with a parade of cheering South Africans and young tourists from every other nation. Before the U.S. and Ghana earned their match-up, I heard plenty of South Africans praise and support the U.S. team, but the desire to support an African team trumped everything. I am praying, with Africa and most of the world, that Ghana beats Uruguay.
Unemployment in South Africa is chronic and stands at about 25 percent. Beggars walk the tourist areas with their hands out and sleep in the doorways. The shanties of the townships house millions of people. I expected that, but I hadn’t expected the rest — the sleek modern prosperity of much of Cape Town, black and white; the young, educated black South Africans in their stylish clothes and multi-lingual comfort with the tourists flocking to their country; the kindly, small-town feel of Nelspruit, where white and black South Africans mingled to work and eat and drink and dance and make us welcome.
When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, we hung a huge African National Congress flag on the outside wall of the Independent’s office in Durham. I had written for the Independent in the 1980s about North Carolina corporations doing business with the apartheid government of South Africa. I remember demonstrating with South African poet Dennis Brutus at Pinehurst, of all places, when — against the bans of world sports bodies — an American group invited the all-white South African golf team to come to Pinehurst and play. So perhaps all that now-ancient history gave me my predisposition to expect something very different here from what I am finding. The South Africans I meet, rich and poor, are proud of their country, proud of its progress and its burgeoning economy, proud to show off South Africa to the world. Yes, there is massive frustration that the government can’t eradicate unemployment or replace the shanties in the townships with real housing. There are gangs and drugs, and violent crime here is rampant. Corruption cases fill the newspapers. But there is a hopefulness, a newness, a sense of progress that I rarely experience in my own country.
It is now raining hard outside. I suppose we will be wearing our rain gear to the stadium tonight for the game. But nothing can dampen the spirits of the fans and the South African people who host us.
Steve Schewel founded the Independent Weekly in 1983 and coaches the Riverside High School girls varsity soccer team