Escape from Soccer City

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  July 15, 2010

Even the stadiums themselves speak to the contrasts. Where Durban's Moses Mabhida is ethereal, gleaming white, like paper delicately folded, the enormous Soccer City on the outskirts of Johannesburg's Soweto township is all brick-colored heft — modeled after an African bowl made out of gourd, it looks like it emerged so solid from the earth.

'It feels safer now'
Though much has been made of a lowered crime rate in the run-up to Africa's first hosting of a World Cup — Reuters reported that 40,000 police were mobilized to work the event — South Africa's criminal reputation remains. Spoken and not, the perception exists that it's the wiser choice to stay in the hotel, else risk mugging or murder.

Outside the complex, locals see something different.

"It's amazing," says Sean, a young white Johannesburg-based digital artist who works at the David Krut gallery and publishing house. "I didn't think there'd be a difference, but it really does feel safer." He talks of the upped police presence, and people being on their best behavior. "I'll be driving around in dodgier spots, spots I normally wouldn't go, or would be scared to go, and it feels safer now."

Sean turns to Jongi, his black coworker, a printmaker. "Do you feel that way?"

"Of course," says Jongi. "For everyone, it's feeling this way."

Is it all the result of the World Cup? "South Africa opened its doors," Jongi replies. "Not just South Africa, but Africa as a whole. The African people want to show the world that they are welcome here, that they can come here and be safe. It's why we call it Mother Africa."

Rising from the streets
Soccer is everywhere here. Wandering around Soweto, a township of over two million people, you'll see kids kicking balls — in alleys, over piles of trash, in the streets. One group of five or six used a half-deflated basketball. It thwapped against their feet. The majority of South Africa's national team rose out of the streets of Soweto. Soccer lives in the townships. It's the dream escape.

But a game, no matter how beautiful, can't erase the divides. As we drove through Houghton, a fancy suburb where Mandela makes his home, we saw large houses hidden behind high thick walls, barbed wire swirls topping fences, and security cameras blinking and rotating at the end of driveways. A half hour later, we're in Soweto, where homes made of corrugated tin have no running water. Dirt streets reek of piss and other unnamed rancid smells. Small kids, snot crusting their upper lips, scramble around, begging for money and sweets.

The tiers of experience — the varying degrees of celebration, intimidation, fear, and hope — are tangible. And people talk about them. People talk about the divides. In my short time here, against he backdrop of this huge sporting event, that's what's struck — and confused — me most.

At the Durban airport, waiting for a flight, a white woman with a patrician way struck up conversation. She was heading home to Johannesburg.

"The Africans in Johannesburg, they're so much more sophisticated than in Durban," she said. "You'll see. They're hugely educated, so professional, all getting their PhDs, all of them striving. And they're just so beautiful, really. Their faces. You'll see."

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