The World Cup and the Real South Africa?

It’s fairly obvious that the South Africa presented to us by FIFA is not the “real South Africa”, whatever that means. Even sports journalists there, notoriously oblivious (for fair enough reasons, much of the time) to their surroundings outside the bubble they are ferried in and out of, were forced to notice this reality last night when a riot broke out by the media centre in Durban.

A World Cup Sunday that began at the soaring new arch of Durban Stadium ended in smoke and shrieks as police officers fired tear gas and what witnesses said were rubber bullets to break up a large group of protesting security guards.The altercation started shortly before 1 a.m. Monday, a few hours after the match between Germany and Australia ended. It began in the parking area underneath the stadium, where some administrative offices are located. It soon spilled into the streets outside as several hundred panicked protesters sprinted away as about 40 police officers advanced toward them on foot.

It was the first black mark during this World Cup, which has generated positive energy and reviews since it began on Friday.

Several of the guards said they and their colleagues were upset at being underpaid or, in some cases, not being paid for their work Sunday, the first day of competition in Durban.

“They’re giving us 205 rand; we started at 12 noon and worked until midnight, and they want to give us 205 rand,” said Sikhumbuzo Mnisi, a 44-year-old from Durban.

At current exchange rates, 205 rand is about $27. “Different things have been said to people, but we were promised 1,500 rand per day,” Mnisi said. “We started to protest because we wanted to negotiate.”

Mnisi said the crowd of workers became unruly and started throwing things like plastic bottles.

At least two workers were injured during the altercation with the police; the workers said they had been struck by rubber bullets.

And so, all of a sudden, we have a piece today from English journalist George Caulkin entitled “Fifa’s lovingly-packaged image is not the real South Africa.” Caulkin’s piece doesn’t provide much insight into what this real South Africa is besides what he noticed on a walk 50 yards away from the sparkling beachfront, but it’s perhaps more valuable for its honesty on why football writers rarely scratch below the surface of the culture they briefly visit:

I could try and blag it, but you’d only see through it. There won’t be expertise in this entry (or, for that matter, in many of them). There won’t be much insight or knowledge or data. I know from the guide books that Durban is the third-largest city in South Africa with 3.5m inhabitants (as well as the biggest on the eastern coast of the whole continent), and its biggest port, but aside from that, pretty much all I have is what my eyes have told me.

I feel guilty about that. Before a holiday, I’ll take care to research the area I’ll be staying in, its history and culture. I read George Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ when I went to Barcelona and Hunter S Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ the first time I went to Whitley Bay (joke; it was Las Vegas. I read Viz the first time I went to Whitley Bay. That’s also a joke. I used to live in Whitley Bay).

But with football, in spite of decent intentions, it’s turned out differently. I wanted to immerse myself in Japan before the World Cup in 2002, but never got round to it. The same with Germany four years later (although I had been there before). It’s a psychological block; the time you spend at tournaments is so intense, so busy, so full of travel and work and madness, that the brain is almost reluctant to assimilate information beforehand.

That’s how I justify it, anyway. There aren’t many better jobs than this one, but the moments of glamour are restricted (honestly). The trips we undertake entail hectic routine: flight, bus to hotel, bus to press conference, write copy, late meal, later bar, row, wake up late, go to stadium, watch game while writing a report which is sent before the end, re-write for later editions, bus to airport, flight home. The duration is longer at competitions, but the plotline is pretty similar.

Blogging from several thousand miles further away, I’m not going to try and fake some serious analysis of South African society and the World Cup, either. So really, we are as much in the dark, and perhaps even more confused, about the place we call South Africa as we were before the tournament started.

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