Michael Church in South Africa

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 July, 2010, 12:00am

'Excuse me, can you help me please?' comes a voice from among the pre-match throng surrounding Ellis Park.

The faultlessly polite young man making the request looks almost like any other fan, save for his slightly grubby appearance and the world-weary look in his eyes. The exhaustion on his face betrays his youth. He can be no more than 20 years old. 'Don't worry, I'm not a crook or anything but I could do with some help,' he continues in a reassuring tone.

'I'm homeless and I just need some money so I can have somewhere to sleep tonight. I've had a terrible day and if you can give me something it would help me a lot.'

Just 22 rand (about HK$22), he says, will be enough to ensure he has somewhere to sleep for the night.

Homelessness is a major problem in the cities of South Africa; the number of people visible on the streets is significant and around Ellis Park, as fans file into the storied old stadium, numerous young men flit in and out of the shadows.

There's no sense of foreboding, however, and their only hope is that a small sliver of the wealth of the assembled fans will somehow find its way into their pockets and their bellies. No amount of loose change is too little.

It is an issue that affects every strand of South African society. While the vast majority of those living on the streets are black - and many are from neighbouring nations who have journeyed to Johannesburg looking for work - the aforementioned young man is white.

The area surrounding Ellis Park - the most famous sports venue in South Africa, the place where Francois Pienaar and his team received the Webb Ellis trophy from Nelson Mandela at the end of the 1995 Rugby World Cup - is far removed from the sterility of the environment in which Soccer City has been built.

Despite a World Cup overhaul costing in the region of 500 million rand, there has been no opportunity to sanitize the area that surrounds the stadium and here there is no room for hospitality tents and corporate functions; this is where the Fifa bubble is penetrated by the social issues that affect South Africans on a day-to-day basis.

Walking through the streets of Hillbrow - a suburb close to where Ellis Park is situated - during the day is to see the real extent of the poverty that grips large swathes of Johannesburg. Street signs are corroded and covered in graffiti; pavements are dug up and have long been in need of repair.

Fruit sellers line the thoroughfares and local people go about their daily business as usual, shopping in supermarkets with barred up windows; they do all this, despite the infrastructure crumbling around them.

It's hard to believe today that Hillbrow was once one of Johannesburg's more affluent areas. It is clearly a different time, almost another place entirely.

During the apartheid era it was designated a 'Whites Only' area but soon became somewhere that South Africa's different races mixed together. It remained resolutely middle class until, due to a lack of spending on infrastructure, the area was incapable of handling the number of people pouring in.

As the wealthy moved out, leaving behind them the once fashionable apartment blocks built in the 1960s, so the poor and disadvantaged poured in. The crime rate started to climb and Hillbrow's reputation now is that of one of the least safe areas in the entire country.

Hillbrow has become synonymous with poverty and danger; it is the suburb foreign visitors have been told to avoid at night, especially on non-match days at Ellis Park. 'There are too many Nigerians here now,' says taxi driver Sam on the way through the suburb. 'Fifty per cent of the people around here now are from Nigeria, and they've brought drugs with them.'

Yet even among the homeless looking for a handout, from the impoverished face painters, the vuvuzela sellers and even those just looking for something to eat, there is a genuine warmth of spirit. To witness such hardships befalling such decent people is heartbreaking.

As the night grows colder and the last of the fans and media drift back to the warmth and safety of their hotels, Bonaventure Tamale is perched on a small concrete plinth, wrapped in a dirty old burgundy blanket. Sitting on the ground beside him is an unopened bottle of champagne: It has to be the most incongruous sight of this - and any - World Cup.

With great grace and no lack of dignity, Bonny explains his plight in soft eloquent tones. He moved to South Africa 18 months earlier from his native Uganda looking for work; he has lived on the streets for the last four months.

'I'm an educated man,' he says, his toes poking out from the end of his sandals on what has become a bitterly cold evening. 'I'm a fully qualified electrical engineer. I'm trying to get back on my feet but it isn't easy. I want to start up my own business but I don't have enough funds. It's hard because I can't afford the rent.'