Michael Church in South Africa

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 June, 2010, 12:00am

Throughout the last week of South Africa's six-year-long odyssey, fighter jets have been screeching so low over Soccer City the earth shakes.

While security has been a major issue in the build-up to the finals, this is not a draconian measure being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of the thousands of foreigners flowing into the country.

Rather, it is part of the dress rehearsals for today's opening ceremony ahead of the first-ever World Cup on African soil, a tournament being billed as the coming-of-age party for an entire continent.

Featuring American singer R. Kelly, who will be backed by the Soweto Spiritual Singers, and a long list of African artists such as Femi Kuti, more than 1,500 performers will take part in the 30-minute show before South Africa's match with Mexico.

In what is sure to be one of the most emotional moments of the day, Nelson Mandela - just weeks short of his 92nd birthday and whose name still fills South Africans with pride and the deepest of affection - will make a fleeting visit to the stadium to see for himself the latest high point of the country's journey out of the apartheid era.

South Africa has certainly travelled a long, difficult road in its preparations and few would argue the country is as developed as it could be; several major roads in and around the areas being used for the tournament remain incomplete and communication systems are not always reliable.

Those are but minor grumbles, however, in the face of the obstacles that have been overcome and because of that this World Cup, mercifully, will lack the sanitised sheen of Beijing's Olympic Games two years ago.

By comparison, South Africa 2010 feels real and organic where Beijing was clinical and efficient but missing the edge most major events need to be memorable beyond the sporting arena.

Johannesburg has been abuzz with constant chatter about the tournament for weeks; most conversations begin and end with something relating to the competition, normally the heralding of the home side's hopes of victory.

Yet to see the real impact requires journeying beyond South Africa's cities and into the communities where the people lack the financial wherewithal to attend the games.

Tickets may be unusually affordable by international standards, but they still remain beyond the reach of the millions of South Africans, who live on or below the poverty line.

That, though, has done little to dampen enthusiasm.

Through the plains outside Johannesburg, past the affluent suburb of Roodepoort - where luxurious homes in gated compounds abound - and beyond the run-down mining community of Krugersdorp, lies the town of Randfonteinon.

There is little to mark it out as special, except for the warmth of the welcome. The mere mention of the World Cup solicits beaming smiles, impromptu celebratory dancing, handshakes and the blowing of the omnipresent vuvuzela.

At the Mohlakano Primary School in the heart of the town, the flaking mural on the gable wall spells out the priorities of life as they are in many South African communities: Stop Abuse, Stop Aids, Practice Safe Sex.

Yet while the signs of poverty are overt in Randfonteinon, there is a sense things could be much worse.

Several kilometres along the road from the neat, small concrete houses that line the community's tight roads is another, smaller settlement, where flimsy tin shacks are gathered together on dusty, barren dirt.

Yet these are the people for whom the World Cup means so much and why Fifa, despite the abundant criticism and the difficulties all involved in the tournament have had to overcome, was right to award the 2010 competition to South Africa.

'I feel like crying, I'm so happy and it's because of Fifa,' says Mrs Mgome, the principal at Mohlakano Primary School. 'It's 2010 and we feel it now. It's not just within us, but it is with us and we feel it.'

The World Cup has brought hope and joy to so many people, even those whose direct contact with the event will be - at the very most - fleeting. It puts to shame the likes of the English press corps, who travel to and from their hotel with armed guards on an official tour costing media organisations GBP28,000 (about HK$317,000) per head for a stay in South Africa until the semi-finals.

While some will justify such hefty expenditure thanks to the hysterical paranoia that was generated - largely in the English media - prior to kick-off, the reality is that Johannesburg feels no more or less safe than any major city in a western nation.

That may well be because of the huge efforts made by the South African government to clamp down on crime, but if that is the case they have done so with the minimum of fuss and with little in the way of conspicuous policing.

Instead, the final stages of the build-up have been all about celebrating the arrival of the biggest sporting show on earth in a nation that so desperately wants to impress.

And for that reason alone, South Africa 2010 has every chance of being a resounding success.