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A Country of Contradictions

South Africa has long been a country of contradictions. It is a country brimming with natural resources yet plagued by widespread poverty; a country rich in ethnic culture yet ridden with racial tension; a country whose most famous citizen, Nelson Mandela, stood as an international avatar of peace even as the domestic murder rate continues to rise.

Salvation, for South Africa, may have come in the form of soccer. At least this is what many of its countrymen hoped after FIFA selected South Africa as the first African nation to host the World Cup. Indeed, the entire continent of Africa rejoiced. But many, both at home and abroad, were skeptical. Some suggested that South Africa’s government was not up to the task of improving the country’s inadequate infrastructure. Others worried about security, a serious concern in a country that averages more than 50 murders per day. South Africans themselves questioned how much the World Cup would improve the situations of average South Africans.

Renewal and Conflict

A vast project of production and preparation ensued. Roads were repaved, transport systems updated, whole soccer stadiums conjured out of thin air. In all, South Africa invested more than $7 billion in the event, no trivial figure in a nation whose unemployment rate hovers perpetually around 25%. In more ways than one, the country was banking on success.

But in April of 2010, just a few months before the World Cup was set to start, disaster struck at home. Eugene Terre’Blanche, a prominent white landowner, was murdered, allegedly by two of his black workers over a payment dispute. Terre’Blanche, a notorious white supremacist, was a co-founder of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), the pro-apartheid political organization. Although the alleged murderers were quickly arrested, an AWB spokesperson urged the international community to boycott the World Cup, calling South Africa a “land of murder.”

Around the same time, Julius Malema, the controversial leader of the African National Congress Youth League, was reprimanded by South African courts for singing at campaign events a song called, “Kill the Boer.” (In South Africa, Boer is the derogatory word for white person.) Soon after, Malema, who is popular among blacks, visited Zimbabwe to praise President Robert Mugabe’s polarizing policy of confiscating white-owned land to bestow on his cronies.

Heavyweights Descend

It is against this queasy racial backdrop that delegations from the 32 competing countries descended upon the country, the whole of South Africa holding its collective breath. The roster bore the expected heavyweights: Brazil, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Little hope was held out for Bafana Bafana, the South African national team. (The home team qualifies for the tournament automatically). Sure enough, Bafana Bafana failed to survive group play, making it the worst performance of a host team in history. Spain and the Netherlands duked it out in the finale, with the Spanish eventually coming out on top.

On the World Stage

But for South Africa, hosting the World Cup had only ever obliquely been about soccer. Instead, it had been about demonstrating to the international community that South Africa could dance on the world stage. In that sense, the Cup proved an unequivocal success. More than 3 million people attended the matches, including 500,000 from outside the country, with few reports of unrest. When more than 700 million people worldwide tuned in on TV, they saw a nation temporarily united. In a country that has never really healed from the grievous wounds of a tumultuous history, there was a sense of collective purpose.

The vuvuzela, an instrument unknown to the Western world, was a story all its own. A traditional horn-like instrument once used by African tribes to summon neighboring villagers, the vuvuzela has become synonymous in South Africa with soccer. Blown in unison, vuvuzelas can produce an ear-shattering ruckus. Some players and coaches complained, citing an inability to concentrate, provoking a debate over whether or not to allow them. Prudently, FIFA declined to act. As the tournament progressed, the vuvuzela became a boisterous symbol of South African pride and unity.

Problems Persist

Still, all is not well in South Africa. One fifth or more of the population is afflicted by HIV, a problem only exacerbated by a government that, until recently, denied the problem altogether. In a country of just under 50 million, the number of young orphans is estimated to surpass 1 million. And 40% of South Africa’s population continues to live on less than $2 per day.

It is unclear how much the legacy of hosting the World Cup will do to improve these conditions. In strictly economic terms, the event was a push, with South Africa’s revenues almost exactly equaling its expenditures. The government is quick to point out that improvements to roads, transportation, and infrastructure will benefit its citizens for many years to come. But critics complain that the resources used to build giant stadiums should have been used to help poor people instead. They call the stadiums “white elephants,” destined to remain empty as they provide a stark reminder of the vast income inequality in a nation marred by racial and economic division.

The Cup’s Benefits

Very few, however, will dispute the immense psychological benefits the process of hosting the World Cup has provided. Sixteen years after apartheid, South Africa remains a country with vast problems. But this summer, South Africa’s progress was broadcast for the entire world to see. Only sixteen years ago, whites and blacks could not six next to each other to watch a simple game of soccer. In 2010, they clustered in shining stadiums, honking vuvuzelas and cheering on their team. Soccer may not have brought salvation to South Africa, but it has fostered a unity previously thought unimaginable.