By: Trevor Kew

What do we in the West think of South Africa?
Carjackings. Shanty towns. Houses behind electric fences. Corruption. AIDS. Apartheid.
The wealthiest nation in Africa. Nelson Mandela. Triumph over tyranny. Lions. Elephants. The 2010 World Cup.
Like all nations, but perhaps more so than any other I’ve traveled to, the number one word that summarizes South Africa for me, at least so far, is color. Never before have I been to such a diverse, complex (and confusing) country. And so while both the positive and negative images are undeniably important parts, they come nowhere close to telling the whole story of South Africa.
The fact that I can attest to this after only five days in the country is testament to the incredible diversity, even within its smallest province, Gauteng.

Even in a brief car journey, the land itself changes from dry beige highveld and lowveld to verdant urban forest or woodland in the blink of an eye. Grass fires (either controlled or uncontrolled) rip across the landscape, their red heat drawing scarlet lines across the dark South African night.

Even without traveling to the game parks, animals are everywhere. I went jogging in the countryside yesterday and found myself chasing a group of large brown and grey horses who had jumped a fence. An ostrich stared suspiciously at me as I passed by his farm. Small birds dive-bombed me, flashes of green and black and blue. Guard dogs bared their bone-white canines at me from behind barbed and electric wire. I nearly tripped over a big black rabbit.

But above all, it has been the people here who have been so surprising. Black and white (or even black, white and colored – as they say here) does not even begin to describe them.

The first thing that can be difficult to remember sometimes is that even though white South Africans are Caucasian and (most) speak English, they are one-hundred-and-ten percent African. Just yesterday, I met a white Afrikaaner the size of a refrigerator with a big black beard, sporting a cowboy hat. He spoke Zulu fluently and could also manage one of the languages (I’m not sure which one) with those unbelievable clicks. “We’re African, of course we are,” he told me. “My family’s been here close to two hundred years. I can’t just turn up in England or Holland and say I want to come back.”

Black South Africans are incredibly diverse. A myriad of tribes, speaking nine (official) languages and coming from different traditional backgrounds, their history has been further complicated by forced migrations and the cruel and restrictive policies of the apartheid regime. And there are also the “coloreds” – people of mixed descent or Asian descent. These days, some black and colored South Africans are profiting from the nation’s relative prosperity. Others, as I definitely saw today while coaching soccer in a shanty town outside Pretoria, are not.

Of course one other thing to know about South Africans is not all of them are South African. Huge numbers of illegal immigrants have flooded in across the porous north border of the country, fleeing war or poverty and seeking a better life in Africa’s most prosperous nation. The reality for them here is often bleak. One Zimbabwean I met, who runs a successful backpacker’s hostel near Pretoria along with a helpful local Afrikaaner,

Photo from fOTOGLIF

told me that if he hadn’t left Zimbabwe, he might have been killed. On his face were several deep scars. Most refugees are not as fortunate as him, as many live in squalid poverty and have suffered xenophobic acts of violence from poor South Africans who see them as competition for jobs.
What has really struck me, however, is that a country with so many divisions and so many challenging problems has been able to stick together. While I am visiting the country at a particularly proud and patriotic time, the question every South African – of every economic level and every color – has asked me has been “What do you like about South Africa?” They seem incredibly anxious to show the world that they are a good country, a friendly country, a country to be reckoned with, on and off the pitch.

And so when I had the privilege of attending South Africa’s second match of the World Cup, against Uruguay at Loftus Versfeld stadium (a famous rugby venue) on June 16th with a South African friend of mine, I thought I was ready for what I would see. I was wrong.

An hour and a half before the match, the stands were already filled with red, white, green, gold, black and blue. South Africans of all shapes, colors and ages (along with a few bewildered-looking Uruguayans) were dancing, shouting and blowing their brains into their vuvuzelas. Even the vuvuzelas were different, as anyone who has seen a kudu-zela (shaped like the twisted horn of an African antelope) or one of the small and incredibly loud and annoying mini-vuvus now knows.

Sadly, the match was a disaster on the pitch for Bafana Bafana, as the slick Uruguay side poured in three goals while the South Africans struggled in attack and saw their goalkeeper Itumelen Khune sent off in the second half for a professional foul.

Today, South Africa looks destined to be the first host nation to go out of the World Cup before the knockout stage. Everyone I spoke to, from the kids on the dirt pitch in Plot 75 to traffic cops to shop attendants, was united in their frustration and disappointment. But as the father of one of the little soccer players told me as he drowned his sorrows in homemade beer in front of his tin and brick house, “At least the World Cup has come to South Africa. And at least we will be famous for something.”

Trevor Kew is a Canadian writer and teacher currently based in Yokohama, Japan.  He is the author of two young adult novels about soccer – Trading Goals and Sidelined (to be released August 1, 2010) – and numerous articles on soccer, travel and culture.

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