Tuesday 28 February 2017

Bafana roar fails to drown out screams of inequality

Dion Fanning

Outside a bar in northern Johannesburg, a man was angry. "I don't know what the people living in shacks thought: that their lives were going to get better because of a soccer team. I just hope they now do their best to make sure the tournament works properly."

There are those who say race is not an issue in South Africa anymore or it may be that it is just not a straightforward issue anymore.

We had met an even angrier man earlier on Wednesday. His name was Archie. Unlike the man outside the bar, he hadn't been drinking, but he also felt nothing was going to change because of the World Cup. Archie felt nothing had changed since apartheid except the faces. Archie talked about Steve Biko and Black Consciousness.

The World Cup would make no difference to the poverty that Archie was probably more concerned about than the drunk man in Sandton, although it might be more accurate to say it concerned him in a different way.

Last Wednesday was Youth Day. Archie's brother had been on the march on June 16, 1976 that ended with the Soweto uprising.

A few miles up the road at the spot where Hector Pieterson was shot, the dignitaries were gathering. There were old ANC revolutionaries, now involved in the tedious business of making the country bearable for the people who had continued to support them, as well as those who always feared them.

Zwelinzima Sizani chuckled when he was asked what he had learned during his years in exile in Angola, Cuba and East Germany. Sizani is now the director of political education for the Gauteng branch of the ANC and he picked up a bit of that on the way, but he also, he says, was taught "counter-insurgency, reconnaissance, artillery".

Governing South Africa today was a process, he said, and probably a bit tedious. Sizani woke up in his own bed on June 16, 1976 and he didn't sleep in it again for 16 years.

In the affluent suburbs, and in the divided political classes of Soweto, Bafana Bafana brought some unity, even if it might only be temporary.

Every day in South Africa, you come across something that reminds you of the complexity which would suggest that it is ludicrous to think that, 15 years after apartheid, anything can be over.

Surprise Moriri was talking about his team-mate Steven Pienaar and described him as a "typical coloured from Westbury who comes across as being a darkie. He mingles with all of us and never has a problem with anyone here. He even behaves like a black boy and I have come to conclude that 'Schillo' is a darkie for real because he even speaks in isiZulu."

Pieterson's family changed the spelling of their surname so they could be considered 'coloured', which provided a better class of subjugation that being black under apartheid. These distinctions remain in people's heads and in the brutal banter of a football dressing-room.

Some people say Soweto has become gentrified but as some say its population is five million and others put it at a million, there is a lot that is said about South Africa's most notable township that contradicts itself.

There is a tourist trail that takes you to the house where Nelson Mandela lived before and after his imprisonment. An ANC activist called Madonna ("I am the first Madonna") shows us around. Mandela lived at this house in Vilakazi for 11 days after his release. "It was crazy," Madonna remembered. "We all wanted to see this man and we were outside the house, singing revolutionary songs." After 11 days of this, Mandela moved elsewhere.

Now the tourists arrive to be greeted by the hawkers on Vilakazi Street, the road that has produced two Nobel Peace prize winners, Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who still lives there.

The tourists climb out of their taxis and minibuses, moving hesitantly and blinking on to the street, staying close to their guide or driver, looking anxious and needy. You can spot all this because, three hours earlier, when you arrived, you did the same thing, assuming hostility, possibly even assuming guilt.

A few hours later, after you've struggled through a few intricate, triple-lock handshakes with guides and former ANC revolutionaries, you're laughing at the gauche neediness of the arrivistes.

Yonela Diko, a letter-writer to the Jo'burg Times, took issue with all this on Friday. "I was unpleasantly surprised to hear him [a Londoner on the radio] proclaim how anxious he was to finally leave affluent suburbia and go to where 'real South Africans' live when he took a tour of Soweto.

"Apparently, if you don't live in a part of the country where you braai your meat in the open, across from a dump site, where you can find a shebeen at every second home, and which are either shacks or tiny houses, then you are somehow not a true representative of your country, and have no hope of authenticity."

Of course, those of us who have been moving in packs across Jo'burg and never walking at night have been mocking our colleagues who are enjoying the promenades and seafront restaurants of Cape Town.

Freedom, we tell them, is not the authentic World Cup experience.

So the tourists to Soweto get a slice of authenticity and return to the northern suburbs, grateful that things didn't become too authentic while we were there.

In the northern Jo'burg bar where I watched South Africa-Uruguay, there was great enthusiasm for the team and great enthusiasm for the drink that goes with it. One man bellowed "Bafana, Bafana" at intervals even as the game slipped away. He did so with a certain irony, a certain assholeness. He had the desperate and superficial certainty of the pub wit and nothing should be read into it but in South Africa, as a visitor, it's hard not to search for meaning as well as some authenticity.

"South Africa is a place where mutually annihilating truths co-exist quite amicably," the great South African journalist Rian Malan wrote recently. The World Cup may have just made them more amicable, if only briefly.

dfanning@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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