Michael Church In South Africa

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 June, 2010, 12:00am

The motto on one of the regimental flags fluttering above the modest, single-storey barracks of the Natal Mounted Rifles on the edge of Durban reads, 'Rough but ready'; it could just as easily be the unofficial slogan of the 2010 finals. South Africa's hosting of the continent's first-ever World Cup has certainly been a no-frills affair, but what the country has lacked logistically, it more than makes up for in the spectacular nature of the surroundings.

As the flight out of Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport climbs to its cruising altitude for the short hop to Durban, it pushes through the thin brown cloud of pollution that seems to hang permanently over the city. From a distance, it's reminiscent of a more run-down, smaller scale and poverty-stricken Los Angeles.

Below, the signs of urbanisation steadily dissipate as the city vanishes into the distance, giving way to the agricultural heartland of the Highveld. Here, large expanses of wild and unkempt countryside sit comfortably beside rows of enormous, cookie-cutter circles of irrigated land.

The landscape projects a fascinating analogy of South African society in general; the prosperous and the well groomed sitting in such close proximity to the barren and the wild. As the edge of the vast veldt approaches, the landscape begins to change markedly and the vegetation takes on an emerald hue; the effects of more constant rainfall and an altogether more humid climate are apparent all around.

The flat high plains disappear and in their place are lush, rolling hills. Temperatures nudge towards the mid-20s degrees Celsius, even in winter, and humidity levels rise from being dry and lip-cracking to those reminiscent of spring in Hong Kong.

The approach to Durban, South Africa's second-largest city, brings with it a sense of not only landing in a different city or even another country, but rather a completely different continent. Such are the contrasts that a 45-minute flight can bring in such a diverse and fascinating land.

'Welcome to Durban,' says the flight attendant shortly after the wheels of the Boeing 737 hit the ground, 'where we hope you enjoy the curry. Watch out, they're hot and they taste great, but you'll regret it later!'

The differences in Durban's demographics are instantly noticeable; Indian faces stand out among the crowd compared to the predominantly black sea of humanity experienced in Johannesburg. Racially, the city is more diverse than the nation's financial and administrative centre - almost 20 per cent of the population come from the subcontinent - with its position as a trading port on the Indian Ocean coast the most obvious reason for its vibrant diversity.

Durban is also one of South Africa's leading tourist destinations, and it's easy to see why on the drive from the airport to the city. Rolling hills dominate the landscape around the newly built King Shaka International Airport, which saw its runway come into use for the first time at the start of May.

The reminders of home were clearly so strong for many of the early Western settlers here they chose to reference the familiar in this far-off land; the names of Athlone and Glenashley betray the Celtic roots of many of those first inhabitants from overseas.

Unlike on the veldt, the Afrikaans influence here is minimal - indeed it's virtually non-existent - having been driven inland by the Anglo-Boer wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to be supplanted instead by an altogether more British sense of colonialism.

Durban sits on the edge of KwaZulu Natal and, as such, is the gateway to an entirely different way of life compared to that experienced in Johannesburg and Pretoria, or further north in the safari lands of Rustenburg and Nelspruit. In a country of numerous tongues - there are 11 official languages in South Africa with a 12th, sign language, about to be granted the same status - Zulu is the more visible alternative to English and Afrikaans.

Before long, the new highway - built to ferry the huge numbers of expected visitors for the World Cup - wends its way towards the sea, and the spectacular sight of the ocean is breathtaking as the monstrous breakers form far off the shore. Soft, sandy beaches run all the way to the city's edge, passing the Moses Mabhida Stadium, another recently completed undertaking especially created for South Africa's hosting of the finals.

There can be no denying the venue's state-of-the-art look; with its soaring arch, it was clearly designed to be iconic. There's also a sense, however, of it being superfluous; barely 50 metres separates the entrance to the venue that will host one of the semi-finals from the front gate of rugby's 55,000-seater Absa Stadium, which only 15 years ago was one of the main venues for the Rugby World Cup.

In a country of such rampant poverty, it remains baffling how such largesse has been permitted, either by the government or by Fifa. Even in these most serene surroundings, the questions are never too far away from the surface.

'All this new infrastructure, why do we need it?' asks my taxi driver. 'It's a waste of money. Everything was fine the way it was. They could have fixed up the old stadium; we don't need all these new roads and the new airport. It's a waste of money.'

Perhaps it's less than coincidence, also, that Durban was where the strike action involving security guards working on the World Cup began. It was here that police were called upon to disperse workers protesting over lower-than-expected pay rates as anger over miniscule salaries - as little as 190 rand (HK$195) per day when, workers claimed, they were promised 1,500 per day - reached boiling point.

Fortunately, the authorities chose not to be so heavy handed with the protests that they mobilised the tanks and armoured personnel carriers housed at the Natal Mounted Rifles barracks positioned between the stadium and the plush, exclusive Durban Country Club. But in the shadow of such spending on lavish, vanity projects, that resentment is to be expected among a people, many of whom continue to miss out on the promised economic benefits of South Africa hosting the 2010 finals.