Notes from South Africa 2010: The Pre-Game

Editor’s note: Our weekly columnist Andrew Guest sends his first dispatch from South Africa, ahead of today’s opening games.

The vuvuzelas are everywhere.  When I first arrived at my quiet Pretoria neighborhood B & B on Wednesday, hearing the call of the one-tone plastic trumpet out my window in the middle of the day made me think a game must be on.  When I went for a walk to investigate I quickly learned otherwise.

In these days of pre-kick-off frenzy, people of all colors and on every street simply want to join the noise.  A good number of cars, the majority of which seem to be flying the South African flag either out the windows or as covers on their rear-view mirrors, have a designated vuvulzelaist (is that a word?).  They blow to scare me as I walk, they blow to express their enthusiasm, they blow just to be part of the thing.

As I’ve checked back on American news sources on the internet these last few days since arriving the news still seems to be mostly about crime and fear.  That is decidedly not the vibe on the ground.  Yes, neighborhoods and buildings often seem to be going for a fortress aesthetic—walls, razor wire, and security companies are big business.  But in walking around for two days as a big, dopey blond with little idea where I’m going, I’ve felt much less a sense of threat than when I lived in Chicago (knock on wood).

The most anxious I’ve been is trying to pick up my tickets at a local shopping mall.  The place was mobbed, both with visitors collecting and locals buying.  There were long lines and long waits even though the volunteers were clear: “no category 4 left” [ie, the cheapest tickets were sold out].  If there are to be empty seats, it won’t be for the lack of local interest—my finger will point straight at the massive allotment to corporate sponsors.

Strangely, in the neighborhood of the mall the most conspicuous group of visiting fans were Algerians.  Good natured fellows, alternately chanting and smoking a hookah pipe at the local Lebanese restaurant they seem to be equipped with a standard issue green and white track suit.  There must be other random conglomerations in other random neighborhoods but here it is the Desert Foxes.

Pretoria is South Africa’s capital, but it is also a historic strong-hold for white Afrikaners—the one’s we are told don’t like soccer.  There are, certainly, lots of signs for the Blue Bulls rugby team and a good number of Springbok jerseys.  And when my city bus was stopped downtown by a mixed parade of soccer supporters, several of the older riders tsk-tsked in disdainful disapproval.  But an equal number seem to be trying it out—back at the mall, when the [black] barista nodded approval at the older Afrikaner’s World Cup t-shirt she responded: “Ack, 400 rand!  But it was late and they had me over a barrel, eh?”

Everything is not, of course, perfect.  The public transportation is a challenge, prices are high, FIFA continues to limit freedoms.  And the noise from the vuvuzelas really is frightful.  But it’s a noise of enthusiasm.  And it is everywhere.

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