Bobby in the heart of it as South Africa prepares for big kick off

Young Unst man BOBBY MACAULAY completed his schooling in Swaziland and is now studying politics at Glasgow University. With the World Cup in South Africa this summer, he decided to return to take in some football, travel in the region some more and attend a school reunion. This is the first of several dis­patches which will have a strong emphasis on the impact of the tournament on poverty, society and racial integration.

I left Unst to go to Swaziland when I was just 16, to take the equivalent of my Highers at an international school in the country. My exper­iences there shaped my views on many issues but most of all made me desperate to return to southern Africa as soon as possible. When I left school at the end of 2006 the venue of the 2010 World Cup had already been announced. I planned to return to Africa to take part in the biggest event the continent has ever hosted, attend a school reunion in Swaziland and travel throughout the region.

I have just completed my third year of politics at Glasgow Univer­sity, a decision largely based on my experiences in Swaziland. The course has a heavy emphasis on develop­ment and international relations and I hope to formulate my dissertation around my experiences volunteering in a social business development program in northern Mozambique.

My travelling partner is Celisse, a Mexican-American I was good friends with at school and who studies a similar course in San Diego, California. Her main con­cern, which is certainly not trivial by any means, is where her allegiances lie in the tournament’s opening game where the hosts Bafana Bafana (the local name for the South Africa team) take on Mexico. She plans to keep relatively quiet either way.

Over the next month or so I’ll share my experiences of living, travel­ling and working in southern Africa and what impact the World Cup is having on poverty, society and racial integration in the relatively new democracy of South Africa.

I flew out of Heathrow on 1st June on Egypt Air, via Cairo, to save on costs. After two flights, not enough sleep and a couple of pints in Cairo airport while watching a repeat of the Europa League Final, I arrived in the financial capital, Johannesburg.

During my last stay, Johannes­burg International Airport was characterised by long sprawling queues, hawkers and petty criminals darting about and men in orange boiler suits offering a “special price” to carry your bags for you. The South Africans have ploughed a huge amount of money into making a good first impression with airports built or rebuilt and public transport between airports, hotels and stadiums massively enhanced for the tournament.

The revamped and renamed O R Tambo International Airport incor­por­ates a refreshing but not entirely positive change. The large shiny arrivals lounge, decked out in wel­come signs, oversized footballs and national flags plays relaxing jazz music to the assembled taxi drivers, official FIFA escorts and expectant friends and family. The dishevelled hawkers have been replaced by official stands selling FIFA merchan­dise while the bag-carriers have been converted to “porters” providing information about the airport and the city with a warm handshake and without charging a penny. However these official guides are still treated with the same disregard as the beggars and hawkers once were, suggesting a shift in airport policy but not yet in public understanding.

Although I can’t deny that I felt safer, cleaner and more relaxed in this new incarnation of the airport, I couldn’t help feeling that this false reality has hit the “little man” the hardest. The small business staple of selling football merchandise in the airport and around stadiums has been banned and crowded out by the multinational industries and their contracts with FIFA.

I spent the morning in the airport waiting for my internal flight to Cape Town being entertained by the trickle of football fans in full regalia, 10 days before the tourna­ment starts. A couple of Japanese and Argentinean fans were drowned out by an entire Brazil supporters club who seemed to grow in size with every new flight that arrived. This was not however the only indication that South Africa was well geared up for this World Cup.

Not far from the arrivals lounge was a steel platform erected by one of the South African mobile phone networks, MTN. There were inter­net facilities, phones for sale and customer service people milling about but their business was limited. The main reason for this was the table-football table at the other side of the stand. Upon approaching the stand it was clear that the small crowd of people circling the table were not recently landed tourists, for which I assume the table was intended, but a variety of taxi drivers, baggage handlers, waiters and check-in staff, each taking their turn to play a game to two goals. When we went up for a look the group of black men were all speak­ing an African language, probably Zulu, but immediately switched to English to offer us a game. It was entertaining to watch how similar the table-football skills were to proper African football with neat skills and touches which dominated the long ball tactics I was attempting to play, unfortunately resulting in Scotland proving no match for the mighty Bafana Bafana!

The group of men increased and decreased in size during the half hour or so I was there with taxi drivers sprinting off to try and find their fare and waiters returning to work after their break. It was the baggage handlers who remained playing throughout and were right­fully crowned champions, though they may have sacrificed some of their duties of employment with the airport.

When we arrived in Cape Town we were met by Marco, a tall, friendly Mozambican who was a good friend at school and who is now half way through his third year of organisational psychology at the University of Cape Town. Marco has a reasonably sized two-bedroom student flat in Observatory, an old part of Cape Town close to the university. All amenities are within a five minute drive and a popular street of student bars, internet cafes and tattoo parlours lies a 10-minute walk away. As in any place in Cape Town, and most of South Africa as a whole, it is not advisable to walk alone at night but Marco assured me that the crime rate in “Obz” is low and that the most common crimes are the odd broken car window to steal the radio inside or the occasional picked pocket – not dissimilar to some places in Glasgow or Edinburgh.

We arrived the day before Marco’s last exam and two days before his 22nd birthday. This led to the flat filling up rapidly to celebrate the two combined events. Marco’s group of friends was a diverse mix of UCT students and assorted Mozambicans, which dispelled any remaining doubts I had about racial integration in South Africa. Marco is mixed race, known in South Africa as “coloured”, as is his girl friend and many of his friends. There was also a good proportion of black and white folk at the party, talking in English, French, Italian and Portugese, with the odd bit of Afrikaans and Xhosa thrown in for good measure. Aside from the racial and cultural diversity, many aspects of the situation are identical to my student experience in Glasgow. His rent and living expenses are similar, student parties started early and continued late, friends played music and football together regularly and nobody had any money. My exper­ience of playing football with the same group of friends a couple of days later cemented that impression with every race playing together, regardless of cultural, linguistic or footballing differences.

The hysteria of the World Cup is being accentuated and played upon by every TV advert that comes on. Every advert has some reference to unity, victory or exposure on the world stage and the debates on the news centre around how to reduce crime, increase revenue and gener­al­ly keep the tournament running smoothly, including the debate of whether to decriminalise pros­titution during the tournament to further entice tourists and increase revenue. One commentator even claimed that the success or failure of the World Cup would determine the success or failure of democracy in South Africa as a whole due to the exposure to the international community of the country’s ability to integrate and organise on a large scale. News coverage though remains an interesting thing in itself.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa, each with millions of people who own TVs and demand news at least a couple of times a day. This leads to the national broadcaster, SABC, having to co-ordinate the repetition of all news in all languages across its three main channels. This understandably takes up most of the day.

And with that, my first week of culture in South Africa of parties, football and watching TV has confirmed my belief that the so-called “developed” world will not be disappointed by their experience here. There is a noticeable presence of foreign fans and the hysteria is such that they are being treated largely with respect and welcomed with open arms. We’ll see how that might change with Friday’s kick-off against Mexico.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.