13 June 2011
One year after the first Fifa World Cup tournament on African soil, my heart is still filled with pride and patriotism every time I hear the sound of a vuvuzela or see a car drive by with the South African flag attached to its window.
On Friday, 11 June 2010, Africa’s first Fifa World Cup kicked off with a brilliant opening ceremony and what turned out to be a memorable 1-1 draw between hosts South Africa and Mexico.
Like they say, Africans celebrate everything – a new life entering the world, the ending of one, the joining of two souls in matrimony – it is all about celebrating. And South Africans more than lived up to that.
On that day, there was no such thing as strangers: people hugged each other everywhere you looked, waving flags, with most unable to utter a word, but wearing jubilant smiles, and tears of joy gleaming in their eyes.
Galvanizing sense of unity
Fans of all shapes, hues and sizes draped the flag over their shoulders; some had headscarves, others donned oversized plastic glasses and bright earrings in the shape of Africa, with frizzy, colourful wigs, giving birth to a unique, galvanizing sense of unity that tore through a country.
Who would have guessed this was a country once hinged on a racial divide?
Sport’s biggest showpiece, which took the country six years of planning and came to define the national agenda, shaping budget priorities, infrastructure development and daily conversations from townships to vineyards, was now a reality.
The month-long event put South Africa at the centre of the world. And boy, did we silence the critics with our smooth operations and vuvuzela-blowing. Foreign fans, some of whom came as skeptics, went home as converts.
On July 11, as the final whistle was blown – marking Spain’s victory, but also Africa’s – fireworks lit up the skies, vuvuzelas shrieked mercilessly, crowds danced and sang – and a palpable magic stretched out to the horizon.
It was the biggest celebration in my living memory, and I bet that goes for most of us, as this was the moment that helped challenge not only the way South Africa is perceived around the world, but Africa as a whole.
World Cup legacy
Today, a year after the tournament, there are still many reminders of the World Cup.
In every city and neighborhood, one finds people proudly sporting their yellow Bafana Bafana jerseys. The World Cup theme songs Waka Waka and Wave the Flag can be heard in townships, where pre-school children still sing along word for word.
But that is not all. Direct infrastructure developments such as new stadiums, enhanced transport options and road upgrades around stadiums, improvements at border posts and points of entry, upgraded telecommunications infrastructure and improved security systems all lead to a better quality of life, and provide long-term, valuable assets to communities.
The World Cup brought an entirely new definition to South African travel. The stadiums are an inspiration of architectural design and top the list of places to see for tourists.
Fifa head Sepp Blatter gave South Africa “nine out of ten” for its performance, saying he would happily back any bid we made for any event in the future.
Fifa also said the World Cup was a huge financial success for all parties concerned – South Africa, Africa, the world football body and its sponsors. Fifa made over U$3.5-billion (R24.15-billion) from the tournament, a figure that flies in the face of previous concerns that the event would be a financial risk.
Not an answer to every problem
However, economists and critics have questioned if the South African government saw returns on its massive investments, and whether the tournament did anything to ease unemployment or grow the economy.
Some have predicted that some of the stadiums are doomed to become “white elephants” due to their large operating costs and lack of events being held in them.
Yes, there are effects from the World Cup which haven’t been as positive as others. Many businesses and municipalities had forecast too much of an economic impact, and some businesses are hurting after anticipating a huge rise in sales and profits.
I’m also not in denial that not every South African shared in the World Cup’s jovial spirit, and I admit that there are still many problems in this country that the World Cup did not solve.
Some missed the games because they had neither TVs nor electricity. People still died from Aids, or in poverty, or at the hands of criminals, far from the world’s cameras, and some informal traders were driven out of stadium exclusion zones.
Some people question why it took Fifa, an immovable deadline and a worldwide audience for us to come together as a nation and for things to be delivered on time.
The answer is not clear-cut, but I will say this: the tournament left us with an infinite legacy. We were great hosts as individuals, as towns, cities, provinces and as a nation.
We partied, played, worked hard and we definitely supported this World Cup like no event before it. The enthusiasm we showed as a nation with our homemade costumes and signs surely left a lasting impression on television screens worldwide.
Nelson Mandela once said in 1996: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”
And I couldn’t agree with him more. In fact, everyone who experienced the World Cup would agree. It was the biggest celebration in my living memory and that of the country.
The World Cup showed me that football is ageless, it can make everyone from those in their ’80s to teenagers behave the same way.
South Africa does have challenges and hurdles to climb, some quite significant. Instead of moaning and looking at the negatives, why don’t we look back at last year’s event with eyes that recognize the achievements? After all, we won the hearts of the world, and we changed perceptions.
And it shouldn’t stop there. My challenge to the nation therefore is: How do we keep winning?