Football Mad: Mid-June 2010

I got back to South Africa on Thursday 3rd June having spent over a month in Norwich, where Douglas was preparing for his GCSE examinations. He worked really hard, and I left feeling proud of him. I travelled on the 06.20 flight out of Norwich to Amsterdam, then took the daylight flight to Johannesburg. It is an arduous journey, but I made good use of the time, marking a PhD, and watching two films, (which are reviewed at the end of the posting). The theme is sport though.

The World Cup kicked off on the 11th June. South Africa held Mexico to a one all draw in the opening match. The mood in the country has been just amazing. The previous Saturday there was a rugby test between Wales and South Africa at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I played squash with my friend Jeremy Grest. After the game we had tea and watched the first 20 minutes of the game. I took his gardener to the bus stop and, on the way home, drove past my local shopping mall. There is, beside the road, a rather seedy bar behind massive steel burglar guards. The clientele are mainly older white people some with missing teeth and most with uncombed hair. I have been there twice and find it a bit odd. In order sit in the bar and watch the television you need to be buy drinks. There on the pavement was a group of, mainly black, car guards, delivery people and security staff, all peering in and cheering wildly as South Africa took the lead. It was truly an astonishing moment to see this engagement around what was, and still is largely, a white sport.

I had the good fortune to be invited by SAB Miller to attend the game between South Africa and the United States in Rustenberg. I spent three nights in an idyllic cottage in Magaliesberg mountains to the east of Pretoria, flying up on the Thursday evening and back on the Sunday. It was a real privilege and very intense. Let me try and bring these events together.

The first theme has to be distances, traffic and infrastructure. Everywhere seemed a ‘long way’, and the traffic made it even longer. My airport pick-up was organised by SAB and we were driven around by a team of older black entrepreneurs. They have set up a co-operative company to provide shuttles and chauffeur drive services. It was a pleasure to be driven by people who are working together. It means, among other things, that all the drivers get a decent salary and most have an investment in the organisation. I have been quite shocked by the salaries paid by the big companies, who, through out-sourcing, totally exploit their drivers.

The traffic generally was quite appalling; on Friday the itinerary had us visiting a project, going to the Indaba Hotel in Sandton for lunch and then dispersing to our various hotels to watch the opening game. We left the project site late, and on reaching Johannesburg, the traffic slowed to a crawl. It took two hours to do 10 kilometers. We abandoned the idea of lunch, bought sandwiches from a shopping centre and went into a bar to see the game. Two outstanding features were the great good humour of everyone we interacted with and the good South Africa response of “we will make a plan”. South Africa came to a standstill on Friday. Most offices and places of employment closed at 12.00 and I gave my staff the whole day off on the grounds that it was not really worth coming in just for four or five hours.

The great achievement of the World Cup (apart from the mood) is the new infrastructure, including the public transport system which is working extraordinarily well. The problem is that South Africans don’t trust it and so clog the roads with their cars. This will be a legacy for a long time.

My cottage was at Phefumula (see www.Phefumula.co.za). The site is well worth looking at. They describe it as: “Against the slopes of the Magaliesberg range is an escape from the hectic Highveld rush, a place of peace and quiet romance. A place to breathe, or just take a deep breath”. It is indeed right up in the mountains at the end of a truly appalling dirt road. Driving the three kilometers from the main road to cottages took 20 minutes in the saloon cars run by the shuttle service, and the undercarriages of the cars kept hitting the ground. It only took five minutes in a 4×4.

The second theme is the amazing feeling in South Africa. It is hard to describe the vibe in the country at the moment. Fans everywhere, the constant blast of the vuvuzelas. I traveled down from Johanesburg on Sunday and the plane, a large Airbus, was jam packed with German fans, all very good humored with occasional football chants being heard about the plane. The announcement is: “passengers are requested not to blow vuvuzela’s on the plane”.

South Africans have put their hearts and souls into making this work. Our crime problem is being addressed by very visible policing and swift justice. Near where I was staying is a lodge where Portuguese journalists were accomodated. They were held up by armed robbers and relieved of cash, laptops and valuables. The police acted incredibly swiftly: the men were arrested, tried and sentenced all within four days. The media, or at least the South African media, made a point of telling us that two of the culprits were Zimbabwean and one was Nigerian. The reason for the speed of the justice is we will only have our visitors in the country for a month and so could not ask them to return for trials. As long as this is real justice I don’t have a problem with it.

We visited two SAB Miller projects. On the Friday a bar in Duduza Township which is part of the “Men in Taverns” project. The goal is to develop responsible drinking and we sat and talked to a number of the participants who are involved in this initiative. The question is whether or not it is possible to have responsible drinking. I believe this is achievable but it is the whole culture that must be changed. I found it most encouraging project.

The second field trip was to the Masakhane Village outside of Magaliesberg. This village of 55 households and approximate 700 people comprises of farm workers who were evicted from their land in 1994. They were allocated land and built their village of corrugated iron shacks. What is unique about this is that they own title to the land and it is run as a form of cooperative. SAB has supported them in a number of ways. We sat in their brand new community hall and walked around the village. What was striking was that this is a community led initiative with SAB and other partners responding to community needs. They have water, a community center and an investment in training people in areas of empowerment and health (a first aid course but wow, it works and people feel empowered). The Masakhane Project website is: themasakhaneproject.blogspot.com.

Each household in this community has a small plot of land and on it, with one or two exceptions were shacks, made of leftover bits of corrugated iron. While what there is available seems minimal and the community poverty stricken we found this community is moving forward in substantial and substantive ways. The young men who were appointed as our guides were articulate and confident.

Nonetheless South Africa is a land of contrasts and from there we went to have lunch in a 5-star luxury hotel called De Hoek http://www.dehoek.com . What a contrast and how unjust it seems that there can be so much wealth and so much poverty right next to each other. We sat in a superb dining room; were fed a world class meal, incredibly meticulously prepared and served with aplomb and dignity by staff whom probably spends time in poverty stricken surroundings not dissimilar to those of Masakhane.

We drove from Masakhane straight to Rustenberg for the game. It was amazing. The streets were well patrolled and our movement into the stadium area went very smoothly. Of course we had parking available right next to the stadium which made life very much easier. The English supporters were out in full force with St George flags, face paints and enthusiasm. I made the mistake of saying use my forehead as a canvass and the picture is in the gallery! There were some Americans but they were in a minority. We arrived on schedule at 4.30 and discovered that the hospitality area did not open until 5.30. We waited outside, but it was all very good humored; people standing around chatting and enjoying the vibe and the environment. Once in the hospitality area we had drinks and yet more food before going in to take our seats. The Royal Bafokeng stadium holds about 42 000 people and was almost full. I suspect the empty seats were those people who had been unable to get tickets to travel to South Africa. It was a sea of colour and wave of noise. I can’t even begin to describe it. We had been very well provided for and this included earplugs. They were most necessary as the vuvuzelas are quite deafening. I was absolutely amazed by the volume. Our seats towards the middle of the pitch and just nine rows back. The game itself was scrappy as there are high levels of nerves among the teams. Nonetheless everyone was out of their seats when England took the lead and again when the USA scored an equalizer.

Traveling back afterwards was a lengthy process. The roads were clogged but it turned out that this was due to a motor accident, something that one cannot plan for. My World Cup experience has begun with a bang and I really feel that we, in South Africa, should be proud and pleased with what we have achieved to date. It is remarkable.

A few striking things. For some reason there were real glass bottles available in the stadium. This has been banned at rugby matches in South Africa and I believe in most other settings. It meant that trying to move down the row was treacherous as it was like walking on ball bearings. I cannot believe that they will allow these to be sold at future matches. The way the game is supposed to work is when the ball goes out of play one of the six or seven strategically placed ball holders around the field will throw a new one in for a quick continuation of the game. Clearly this experience was not one that the staff had had and as a result it was very funny to see a ball being kicked into the crowd and the man almost pleading that it be returned as soon as possible. The teams are transported to and from the matches in coaches and these are provided with a police escort. I’m not certain that I altogether approve of this blue light cavalcade as it disrupts traffic for everybody else.

Films

“Crazy Heart” is the story of a moderately successful country and western singer. It is similar to “Walk the Line” the Johnny Cash story. The key character is played by Jeff Bridges, who sympathetically portrays an older man, with a serious drinking problem, battling to make his way in an unforgiving world. The film ends with him having cleaned up his act, but not making it with the woman he falls in love with. It is an unusual but touching ending.

“Invictus” directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of the Rugby World Cup won by South Africa in 1995. It describes the astute politics of Nelson Mandela in allowing the Springboks to keep their name and their colours, in the face of opposition from the new Government. The story covers the period from the release of Mandela up to the when Francois Pienaar played by Matt Damon accepts the Cup at Ellis Park after beating the All Blacks. It is a remarkable story in terms of rugby and the politics around it

Mandela is sympathetically portrayed by Morgan Freeman. There are some little twists in the story that make it intriguing. For example there is mention of the danger of an attack on Mandela at the rugby game. A few seconds later we see a white male looking at the stadium through binoculars, but nothing comes of it. It also showed the jumbo jet flying low over the stadium at the opening match. I wonder how legal this was. This film proved to me how much altitude and wine heighten emotions. I sobbed my way through it.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is based on a children’s book. I found the film to be gloomy, odd and quite unpleasant so only watched 20 minutes.