Friday 15 December 2017

Ignore the scaremongers, this is a walk in the park

Dion Fanning

Joshua Ferris's novel The Unnamed is a story about a man who has an untreatable medical condition: he can't stop walking. He is ruined by this condition that baffles doctors -- one describes it as "a benign idiopathic perambulation" -- and his family are in despair, living anxiously in case today is another day when he begins to walk, only stopping when he collapses somewhere from exhaustion.

It's a moving and powerful story but I can't help feeling Ferris missed a trick by not setting it in Johannesburg, even if it would have undermined certain aspects of the metaphor.

There is something about the mundane ritual of walking that makes his condition tragic. People wonder why he is strolling when they are talking to him. Why has he walked away? In Johannesburg, they would see him walking and immediately place him under close psychiatric observation.

A colleague and I took two separate walks the other day, one of at least 800 yards in the dark, and we were wondering if we might merit a little feature in the local newspaper as sort of visiting eccentrics.

It is not safety alone that has persuaded Jo'burgers to take to their cars, where they sit in fear of a car-jacking (a spark plug against the side window is the swiftest and most frightening method of breaking glass, snatching a phone and terrifying the driver into submission). The sprawling city ensures that even if they had not retreated behind high fences, they would have concluded that walking is futile. Sloth may just be masquerading as vigilance.

This, I think, is the reason people slow down and look at us when we walk rather than the idea that we are engaging in some sort of criminal negligence with ourselves as the neglected party.

Those who are also on the street greet other pedestrians with a cheery 'hello'. It is, of course, not what we were told to expect.

South Africa spent 45 million rand on 56 World Cup courts, which were to operate for 14 hours a day. Some 110 magistrates, 260 prosecutors, 327 court orderlies, 93 foreign language interpreters, 108 local language interpreters, 110 legal aid lawyers and 166 court clerks were assigned. On Wednesday, the court in Johannesburg heard one case, a matter of alcohol theft at Soccer City, which was not heard as it was sent back to the investigating officer who, as investigating officers do, was asked to do more investigating.

Encouraged by the news that the Special Criminal Court has been dealing mainly with trivial matters, (if alcohol theft can ever be referred to as trivial and I'm not sure it can), people have been trying to explain the change in South Africa.

Monique Rissen-Harrisberg, the founder of the The Voice Clinic in Johannesburg was pretty sure she had the answer. According to the Jo'burg Star, she believed that because "soccer fans are putting their energy into their voices and expressing themselves via the vuvuzela, incidents of crime and football hooliganism are being curbed."

"Loud vocalisation releases tension from your body and can therapeutically takes your mind off your troubles. This, combined with the deep breath needed to sound the vuvuzela, can have a remarkable effect as it releases tension from the body and clears the mind," she explained. Indeed.

Yet the vuvuzela has placed hateful thoughts in as many heads as it has soothed so that can't be the answer.

South Africans are very eager to hear your thoughts on their country and when they know you've been to a number of World Cups, they want to know how it compares.

There are certain truths that dominate at these tournaments and so you tell them that the media centres in South Africa are as good as the media centres you've attended at other tournaments. This is a FIFA trademarked world, a world of FIFA's Sharia law where women are threatened with jail for wearing the wrong kind of dress.

This is the world we live in and it is a strange one. As I write this, Bruce Grobbelaar has just walked by carrying a tripod on his shoulder and the Japanese journalist beside me in the Loftus Stadium, Pretoria, media centre is hugging and stroking his laptop.

There has been a lot of understandable anger about the pre-tournament suggestions that a visitor's first experience was likely to be violent crime, which would be repeated over and over again until they saw sense and went home.

They mock the rushed judgment based on a weekend in South Africa, but if the rushed judgment is that Johannesburg's hospitality far outstrips it's danger then is that equally bogus?

South Africans are desperate for the feeling of the past two weeks to continue. They united one last time behind Bafana Bafana last Tuesday and the dramatic victory against France was probably a better result than making the last 16 and exiting tamely.

Before they were knocked out, they worried if the tournament would be supported once South Africa were gone. Now they worry about what will happen when the tournament ends and normality returns.

So they ask us what do we think, but what can we think? It is a form of anxiety transference familiar to any Irish person who has ever asked a tourist 'What do you think of Ireland?' We never really wanted an honest answer. I think in South Africa they might.

But there is an insurance ad here that says, "There's a lot to be frightened about." I know the feeling but it isn't the feeling of this tournament.

My experience is an imperfect, self-centred one. I am the superstitious type who doesn't like to say all is well in case that is the moment some hitherto disputed gods decide to spring a surprise. Outside, it is Africa and it's glorious. Inside, it's the World Cup and the journalist beside me is now sleeping on his laptop, his head nuzzling against the keyboard. Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow.

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