The country and people of South Africa

This inevitably had to be the last post even though I had wanted to write about the people from pretty early on in the trip. What of the country first of all?

The numbers of visitors at the World Cup seemed to be significantly less than anticipated (I heard this consistently on my travels) and although (lack of) geographical proximity, FIFA’s inflated forecasts and a worldwide recession may have been contributory factors I suspect the main reason was actually the negative publicity that South Africa receives abroad. One often hears stories of rampant crime, high HIV rates, terrible road fatality statistics, racial tension, no go areas in cities etc. etc. These all exist in one form or another but are no means unique to South Africa. There are areas of London, New York & Los Angeles that I wouldn’t care to be wandering round alone at nighttime.  It seemed that as long as you tool normal & reasonable precautions, personal security wasn’t an issue. We never felt threatened during our 3 weeks travelling around the country and the only person I heard of who got robbed was the young American student who passed out drunk as a skunk outside a bar on a sofa. Even then, he only lost his wallet. Lucky boy.

Problems do exist though in South Africa and they’re quite close to the surface. Economic growth has attracted migrants from all over the African continent, especially to Joburg, and this is causing simmering resentment, especially with regards to unemployment.  In the recent UK General Election immigration was a hot topic, it’s a political hot potato in many parts of the world as informed citizens become more mobile and move to where the opportunities are greatest.

Racial tension is also an obvious challenge. What the country has achieved in the post Apartheid era is incredible and in no small part due to the charisma and personality of a certain Nelson Mandela. One only has to look across the border to Zimbabwe to see how difficult the transition from one form of governance to another can be and we probably take for granted sometimes what a difficult task the South Africans have faced. Although the progress has been excellent so far, this process will take decades and is not something that Mandela or Zuma or any other politician can solve in a 5 year term of office.  Many of the whites, when probed, candidly spoke of their back up plans for moving their families overseas if the country descended into economic or social turmoil. All were united though in saying they would only do that as an absolute last resort because they passionately loved the country they lived in.

I’m 100% sure that the (Football) World Cup was a positive step in this ongoing integration process. The Rugby World Cup in 1995 had been a defining moment for the new Rainbow Nation but rugby was and perhaps still is a predominantly white sport (see the movie Invictus for some Hollywood style background on this) whereas football had been the sport of the blacks throughout the apartheid years. Many of the whites I spoke to said their favourite sport was still rugby but they were proud to be hosting the Football World Cup and were 100% behind Bafana Bafana. We saw total unity among the locals at football matches irrespective of colour, social status etc. and although it would be naive to suppose that we didn’t see a sanitised, tourist friendly view of South Africa there was such a reservoir of goodwill present that one has to be optimistic for the future.

This though is a macro view and susceptible to generalisations. It’s perhaps more instructive to move down to a micro level, to examine one’s own experiences and for me this is where the warmth and generosity of spirit really shines through. There are countless examples I could note (a few selected ones below) of local people who went above and beyond the call of duty to help us and never for monetary reward. They did it because it came naturally to them and because they wanted visitors to enjoy the experience of being in their wonderful country:

  1.  Christu – the driver who had volunteered to help me print out tickets the day of my arrival and spent about 6 hours driving me around Joburg and waiting for me to get sorted
  2. Etta – the landlady of the guest house in Bloemfontein we stayed with.  After England came 2nd in their group we realised we would be playing in Bloemfontein the 2nd round rather than Rustenburg and had no accommodation booked. We called Etta and although she had no rooms available back at her own place she took it upon herself to call all the local B&B places until she had secured us 3 rooms. We weren’t even staying with her and still she couldn’t do enough for us!
  3. Mohammed – the Indian guy we met on the drive from Bloemfontein to Port Elizabeth for the England game. There were major roadworks every few miles which necessitated a 10-20 mins wait for opposing traffic to file through the single lane. Got chatting to Mohammed at one of these traffic stops and within 10 mins he had invited me to drive, with his family, in his car the next day to Durban. I never managed to take him up on the offer because we had ‘accomodation issues’ in Port Elizabeth but we stayed in contact via text and several days later it was Mohammed who we ended up selling our spare Qtr and Semi-Final tickets to. Actually to be accurate it was one of Mohammed’s friends; Abdul. Mohammed lived in Durban but had called his friend Abdul (who lived in Joburg) to immediately go and buy 7 Qtr and Semi-Final tickets off these complete strangers. BTW, if you think Facebook or Linked In are useful tools for connecting with your extended social circle, they are as nothing compared to the power of the Indian Diaspora. Every country I’ve ever lived in there are wealthy Indians who know everyone and are hyper connected; perhaps the blueprint for the Borg Collective. 

So Abdul (Mohammed’s friend) arranges to meet us at a McDonalds in a part of Joburg we are unfamiliar with and hand over 21,000 Rand in cash (about US$ 3,000). This would be quite a wedge of cash anyway but the largest denomination banknote in general use in S. Africa today is the 100 Rand (200’s have had too many forgeries) so Abdul turned up with half a rucksack stuffed full of cash which of course we had to count in the restaurant. I confess we were a little apprehensive. In true John Le Carre style Richard and I did the transaction and afterwards Richard met Kieran, who was loitering nearby incognito, in the toilets to pass over the money in a classic bag switch operation.

Anyway, we needn’t have worried. Abdul gave us a lift to the ground in his BMW 5 Series, ‘persuaded’ a policeman to let us park, quite illegally, right by Ellis Park, insisted we take his 2 match tickets, so Richard and I could sit together, while he stood outside and tried to sell off the extra ticket we now had between us. Feeling rather overwhelmed by his generosity I offered to do what any English football fan would do under the circumstances and bought him a beer. Bad call, non drinking Muslim but a fanatical football fan and we had a great time at the game.  

There are loads of other examples and I apologise to so many people for not mentioning them in more detail (the people of Pepper Entertainments, the UCT Campus Accomodation staff, the affable & accomodating South African Airways groundstaff etc. etc. etc.) This was a country displaying it’s wares, it’s product, it’s very soul.

Despite the dazzling variety of things to see and do it was the warmth of the welcome shown by the entire population that left the biggest imprint. Many South Africans may have been disappointed with the initial number of visitors but I offer this perspective. In the business world, people often use repeat purchase as an important brand loyalty metric i.e. once a consumer has bought your product or service do they go back again and again? The most successful brands in the world inspire this loyalty and it is economically more efficient to retain consumers that constantly attract new ones.

By the time I had left Cape Town (half way through my trip) I was already thinking about when we could come back for a family holiday. How my wife would enjoy Cape Town, how the kids would love safari etc. This became a recurring theme as I travelled round and talked to other football fans who were here without their families. So I’m sure the brand of South Africa has been improved both in terms of greater awareness and also greater positivity. The benefits will be difficult to measure but I’m sure will last for many years to come.

So the sun sets on another great tournament and great adventure. The people of South Africa have made this perhaps more spontaneous than the last few World Cups. Just look back and ask yourself, do spontaneous and Germany (2006) or Japan (2002) or even France (1998) often co-exist in the same sentence?

There are a group of people however who live, eat and breath spontaneity. These are the Brazilians. I have never ever seen any hint of aggression by Brazilian football fans despite often seeing them in their thousands. It was a very touching moment to see them in the bowels of Ellis Park stadium after the Brazil vs Chile match; singing, dancing, bursting with joy and totally in unison with the local South Africans, a kind of Rainbow Samba fusion. So take the torch Brazil, we are already looking forward to what promises to be a sensational time in 2014.

That then concludes this blog, it was never the intention to carry on after the World Cup or even after I returned to the UK as the perspective was about being there, not watching games on TV. I hope you have enjoyed it and maybe you will consider your own voyage of discovery to Brazil for the next World Cup.

See you there.

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One Comment on “The country and people of South Africa”

  1. davdin Says:

    hey, this was a great blog to read. great job and thanks for sharing your experience at the world cup! And sorry England didn’t make it far. If it is of any consolation, you made it further than Italy 😉

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