Michael Church In South Africa

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2010, 12:00am

Sometimes, when the traffic is gridlocked and the minutes are counting down towards a match at a far-flung stadium or when the mobile phone network drops yet another call, it's easy to forget just how far South Africa has come in such a short period of time. There can be no denying the African continent's first World Cup has been filled with frustrations that other, more recent tournaments, have avoided. Where travelling around nations such as France, Japan or Germany was as simple as stepping on to a high-speed train that would reach its destination in double-quick time, a lack of public transport makes moving between the venue cities difficult without either a car or taking on the expense of flying.

These issues, however, are minor compared to those experienced on a day-to-day basis by many South Africans; a 10-day-old power cut being endured by residents in a neighbourhood in Soweto - the township that sits right next to the centerpiece venue, Soccer City - goes some way towards highlighting the triviality of grumbles about roads and transportation.

Comparisons to other recent World Cup hosts are unfair, for none has come through what South Africa has endured in its recent history. Both Japan and Germany had long since left behind the woes of their post-war rebuilding years when they last held the finals. That the country was even able to follow up the ambition of hosting the world's biggest sporting event is a feat in itself. It is a sense that is made no more apparent than at Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum.

Housed on the same grounds as the Gold Reef City theme park, it's perhaps fitting that the museum sits in the shadow of a roller-coaster, and the comparison between the nation's historical fortunes and the corkscrewing ups and downs of the amusement ride is an easy one to make.

In the minds of many foreigners visiting South Africa for the first time, the path from state-run segregation to equality for all was a relatively smooth one, and it's convenient to think that when Nelson Mandela was granted freedom from the prison cell he inhabited for 27 years on Robben Island in early 1990, it precipitated the end of the hated regime.

Ultimately, the release of South Africa's greatest icon did lead to the end of apartheid, but the four years between the end of his incarceration and his election as the country's first black president saw the nation stand on the brink of civil war.

Factions of the white minority ruling elite were desperate to hang on to power and, colluding with sinister elements within the security forces, they sought to destabilise the black opposition with targeted killings and assassinations.

This was the level of tension that enveloped and threatened the country before, during and - even - immediately after the election. And, all of this in the same year as Italy's Roberto Baggio fired his penalty high over the crossbar at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena to hand Brazil their fourth World Cup crown. Football held a special place in the battle against apartheid, with members of the African National Congress regularly meeting at games to stand on the terraces and sing anti-white rule protest songs.

Even in that first election where voting was open to the whole population, the SOCCER Party - the Sport Organisation for Collective Contributions and Equal Rights - had its name on the ballot papers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the lingering and deep-rooted injustices endured by the majority of the population during a regime that held power for close to 50 years are still being felt today and many of the country's problems trace their way back to those dark days.

Poverty still affects the majority of black South Africans and many are trapped in a cycle they cannot escape because of poor education and limited opportunities, even if the constitution implemented in South Africa in 1994 guarantees levels of freedom not available elsewhere in Africa or in many countries around the world.

In the eyes of a growing number of South Africans who have lived through the hardest of times and who now see the country celebrating its freedom, there is exasperation that the politicians - and, indeed, the realm of politics in general - have not moved forward. The African National Congress, which spearheaded the fight against apartheid, has now held power for more than 16 years but there are those diehard supporters who now believe the party has passed its sell-by date.

'People are still voting for the struggle, they're not voting with their heads,' says Mpau, whose Zulu name means 'a gift'. 'We need a government who will govern, we need politicians who will lead and solve our problems.

'Too many of them now are looking after themselves. It has to change. We need a proper opposition. The ANC has served its purpose and now we need to move on. We have to, for the sake of the country and for our children.'

Not enough is being done to improve the lives of those who need the most help and instead politicians continue to work at grass-roots level to enhance their own standing, building powerbases and climbing the ladder without addressing the longer-term issues that haunt the nation.

South Africa's extremely high crime figures - and the hysteria generated by them in the international media - have kept many foreign visitors away, depriving the country of much-needed income as it seeks to balance the books on what is an expensive undertaking.

That crime, though, is fuelled primarily by the desperation of the poor, the ill-educated millions who live day to day and meal to meal in squatter camps and the illegal immigrants who have flooded the country from nations such as Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

South Africa is far from perfect and as a nation it has many major problems to tackle now and in the future; but for it to be able to host the World Cup finals so soon after such a turbulent and difficult period in its history remains a remarkable feat.