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Leaving the Table

July 18, 2010

It’s Tuesday afternoon. I only have a few hours left in this country, of this experience, and have promised myself a final plate of the region’s almost peerless calamari at one of the V&A Waterfront’s establishments. The day is clear, impeccable, purest blue. Table Mountain seems more striking today than at any time in the last few weeks, and I’ve already spent three hours on Robben Island wondering how on earth such atrocities could have been carried out within view of a place like this. It’s time to gather breath and sit down in South Africa for one, final time.

But first, there’s somewhere I have to go. I walk through the Waterfront, past Somerset Hospital, veering left at the big sign that – above fast-receding scaffolding – still just about reads ‘Cape Town Welcomes You’. I’m retracing steps that I had made twice in more exuberant times than these. It’s nearly silent – save for a clinking, a grating of metal. As I turn into the road where I’d queued, with a vibrant din of Portuguese fans, for my first ticket check of the 2010 World Cup a little over three weeks previously, the only people around are workmen. Most of them are clearing away a few hundred yards of event fencing, although a higher version of the same stuff still prevents pedestrians from getting any nearer to Green Point Stadium than non-ticketholders had been able to on a matchday. Others are removing direction-giving signs, and posters. Fencing being scraped, dragged. Billboards, images, being taken down and piled. It’s as painstakingly pathos-inducing as a Pinter play, it’s the slow chipping away of a monolith that had meant so much more. You almost crave a sighting of the FIFA logo, it’s that eerie.

I walk round the perimeter, feeling the emptiness acutely. I’m nearly 90 degrees of the way round when I spot a gap in the tall fencing that remains and slip through, wanting to get nearer to the dismantling work that’s going on in the stadium itself. I trot on another 100 metres or so before the figures of two policemen, deployed to expel intruders such as this one, yell from a little further away. I motion to my camera, shout “one minute?” and they seem happy enough – so I snap further at the sparseness and the noiselessness, which now seem very grey indeed, before waving acknowledgment towards them and heading out. I head from where I came, weaving around the stacked-up bits of steel, and order the biggest seafood platter on the menu.

Later, my taxi driver is Jim. Rhodesia-born and probably in his late sixties, he mutters unrepeatable things about local black-owned minibus firms as we pass a devastating accident scene – and almost certainly two dead bodies – on the motorway to the airport. Is he sorry the party’s over? “No, the traffic in town was impossible and the amount of new business was nothing like we’d been promised.” But are the reverberations positive? “Look, I’m happy you all enjoyed yourselves. But we’re already hearing some of the guys here threaten violence against other Africans once everyone else has gone home. Nothing’s going to change.”

Eighteen hours after this, I’m back at my desk in London and there’s an email from Vuli (our Johannesburg host, see earlier blogs).  “I hope your visit left you with indelible memories,” he tells Dave, Andy and I. “We look up to you to spread a good word about South Africa in a world hungry for negativity.”

Vuli and Jim had effected the same passing-on of responsibility in very different ways. I felt strange upon that walk around Green Point, anxious for the South Africans who’d invested aspirations and positive energy in the month-long festival whose icons were being stripped and whose atmospheres had waned. I thought about one of FIFA’s biggest sins, the sterile zones every matchday between stadia and hopeful local traders – hyphenated spaces between abstract expectations of a brighter future and the cold, metallic reality of FIFA’s moveable feast, its travelling mini-state. That this gap wasn’t really filled, in any sense, during the competition – and that decent people were thus kept at arm’s length – was a black mark upon the summer. So perhaps the point indirectly made by host and taxi driver alike was the same – that it’s for us to occupy the space now.

Really? Like FIFA we marched in, swept out – a few grand out of pocket as opposed to the football federation’s multi-billion profit, admittedly. The World Cup was never going to be a magic wand for South Africa, everybody waking on July 12 to see a world resolved. This is no inexorable, triumphant march towards eradicating crime, poverty and HIV (the latter, incidentally, being the single major social problem that never, not once, came up in conversation with a local), but nor is it a hungover slump back into what has passed before. Vuli is right – the best we could do was to come, not just for the football but to watch, listen, learn, think and then disseminate. I assured numerous people that I’d return home and tell 50 people what a wonderful experience I’d had, and that if thousands of others did the same then the results could be more than valuable. In times packed with transient enthusiasm, I’ll stick to that – already have. If it informs people about places like KwaThema, tells them that it’s more than safe to visit and see for themselves, helps remove any stigma for just a handful of people, then it’ll be been worth it. Like anyone, South Africa wants to be loved, to be perceived well, to be communicated with – this fact stared me in the face, everywhere. If you’re confident in the knowledge of that, it becomes so much easier to achieve and to muster up the energy for positive work.

So the gap, this sterile zone between the hard fact of what the World Cup was and the slightly intangible warmth of what it meant, is that timeworn one of perception – which makes FIFA’s decision not to allow any genuine African influences around its stadia even more discomfiting and places the onus on the visitor yet further. It’s for those of us who were present to throng that zone now – not to have simply seen the football and returned, but to have oscillated between both sides and recognised exactly why it was so important for South Africa to host this event. Our understanding, you feel strongly, was one of the biggest reasons. As those fences were taken down in Cape Town, you only hope that the procedure was being mirrored, in far softer a way, by thousands of thought processes in those heading back to whence they came.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mat Paskins permalink
    July 18, 2010 1:22 pm

    This was brilliant, Nick. I’m not a football fan. But I particularly liked – ‘So the gap, this sterile zone between the hard fact of what the World Cup was and the slightly intangible warmth of what it meant, is that timeworn one of perception – which makes FIFA’s decision not to allow any genuine African influences around its stadia even more discomfiting and places the onus on the visitor even more’.

  2. Paul permalink
    July 18, 2010 5:57 pm

    Calamari and the Waterfront? Sounds like the good old days in Canary Wharf.

    Nice blog, Nick.

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