June 30th/July 1st
How very weird. Two rest days. Two days without football. We go to Sandton with The Bee, Aisling and Rosie for a little lunch and shop. It’s the financial heart of Johannesburg, full of black diamonds and middle classes of every hue. Nelson Mandela Square is spoiled by a large inflatable Sony exhibition tent – the inflatable corporate theme of this World Cup are these red and white blobs of shit everywhere.
Billy goes to take Ais and Rosie to the airport and Jen and I decide to investigate the legendary Market Theatre of Johannesburg which is downtown in Newtown. This is the true heart of Jozi, there’s a real african feel to these streets, stalls, taxis, people selling animal parts (yuk) and general street business. We circle the area and the brand new Mandela bridge a few times before we find the venue, an impressive adaptation of a fruit market into one of the most famous theatres in the world. Regularly putting on anti-apartheid plays during the dark days, run by Barney Simon, this theatre helped shape many people’s politics, and when they toured the UK and elsewhere, spread the word about what was happening inside South Africa during the 70s and 80s. We feel almost on a pilgrimage to buy tickets and see a show here.
But tonight there’s no theatre – it’s the south african music festival and a band called Jozi are playing. We buy tickets and join a gang of teenagers mainly, black kids largely in the legendary auditorium. Jen quietly sheds a tear. Then a DJ starts scratching and Jozi turn out to be a local hip-hop act , a DJ with a great singer and a very cool rapper, quite poppy but extremely good. The teenage girls are screaming and as they bring on various guest artists some of whom rap in local languages sesotho, xhosa and sestwana we are thoroughly entertained. Jozi’s main rapper reappears on a skateboard and raps while circling the stage. Impressive. Over the road in the Laboratory is another show included in the ticket price so we wander in. It’s called The House Of The Holy Afro and is essentially a drag act with House music. We get bored and leave. But a quick word about House, or Afro-House which dominatess the airwaves here – we didn’t bring any CDs or ipods and thus listen to the local radio stations all day long, and I tell you what – afro-house is IT mate !!! Very 80s mixes but with the unmistakable rumble which places it on this continent. Loads of covers too of famous soul songs by local artists. A very musically rich culture here. My favourite Jozi songs were those that sampled mbaquanga – people like Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens, pumping township jive from the 70s and 80s, but all the music here : the gospel, the pop, the house, the hiphop, the jazz is so vivid, so full of energy. You can’t beat a township jive bassline though! Ask Malcolm McClaren…
Next day we drive up to De Wildt’s Cheetah Reserve in the afternoon which is north of Pretoria and spend a few hours in the company of these beautiful beasts. They’re bred here and placed back into the wild (why it’s called “the wild” I don’t know since this inevitably means a National Park or ‘game reserve’. And while we’re at it the word ‘game’ tells you all you need to know about it’s disappearance in the last 300 years and why it all now needs protecting. Game bollocks.That and the local superstitions about animal parts.) The centre also uses the more naturalized cheetahs as ‘ambassadors’ and they are taken to townships and shown to children who get to stroke them, thus allaying some of the fear africans have of these large cats.
This park also breeds some other endangered species notably vultures and African Hunting Dogs – not to be confused with hyenas. These are amazing pack animals – no-one goes hungry even the lame and old – and the young pups are given first gobbles at any food that appears. They are fed in front of us and we watch the heirarchy of eating. If there is none left for the males, they get regurgitated food which gets passed around. Disgusting, but other species simply don’t look after each other in this way. Their eyes are red, and when we drive into their area they run around our vehicle as if we are a group of impala. The African Hunting Dog is extremely rare in the so-called “wild” and cannot be domesticated – even if you bring one up as a puppy, it will challenge you one day. They stay wild essentially. I loved ’em.
That night we drive into Melville with Billy, the funkiest part of Jozi where blacks and whites mingle all night long in the various bars restaurants and clubs. It feels a little like Brighton, and many of the folk here are the “Born Free” generation, in their 20s. There is a relaxed confident lively vibe in Melville which is very warm.
Quarter Finals start today – we drive back to Soweto to watch Brazil v Holland in a restaurant there called Sakhumzis on Vilakazi Street. It’s packed but we manage to get a table. Present : me, Jen, Billy, Ade, Hinsh and Damian and many dutch, brazilian and locals who engage in face painting while watching Brazil tumble out of the tournament to all of our delight. Not because we love Holland, but Brazil and their fans always seem to have this air of entitlement when it comes to World Cups – they’re the best, bow down and worship, and move on. It’s a pleasure to see them beaten frankly.
And so on to Soccer City, where all the painted faces have only one flag on them – that of Ghana. Soccer City is the calabash-shaped arena where the opening ceremony was held, and where the final will be played. It’s near Soweto, not in it, so once again we are following The Bee. A few circling movements around the township and we’re in traffic with the usual young chaps offering parking. But we’re miles from the stadium, so Billy spins round, I follow, and we’re off down the motorway to a different exit, through a security roadblock with a nod and spying three cars parked behind some orange cones right next door to the hospitality, slide in behind them. The stadium is breathtaking, Jen and I need to find two tickets which we promptly do for £100 each and we enter the arean to witness The Ghana take on Uruguay in the World Cup Quarter finals.
The place is astonishing by any standards, and the game is good. Muntari scores for Ghana just before halftime, but Forlan equalizes with a stunning free-kick just after the restart, and it stays 1-1. Until that final minute of extra time when Suarez handballs on the line and is red-carded, but of course all the tension and pressure then falls onto Gyan to convert the resulting penalty kick.
Seconds after the photo was taken Gyan stepped up and crashed his shot against the crossbar and up into the night sky. It was the last kick of the game and we went to penalties. We all knew Ghana were out. Respect to Gyan, he picked himself up and converted the first pen, but they were undone and Uruguay progressed to much booing while Gyan had to be carried off the pitch such was his personal despair. I felt for him – he’ll have to carry that moment forever, but over-riding that sorrow was a terrible sense that an injustice had been done. That a player had cheated – handball on the goal-line preventing a certain goal – and kept his team in the game, which they had then won. A very sour taste in the mouth for a whole continent, nay a whole watching world to swallow. A very poor lesson to teach the kids inside that stadium and watching in their homes across the globe. Cheating works. Gutted, we walked back to the car, but it was no longer there, and neither was Billy’s. We’d been towed. The other 3 cars parked there were police cars.
Jen sweeted up the policewoman with her charm and little-girl-lost eyes and in the twinkling of a star we were in a taxi bound for Jozi with strict instructions we were not to be charged more than 10Rand (90p) each. The cars cost 700 Rand to recover. One of those nights.
Next day was Melville again for shopping and internet cafe coffee and a ringside seat for Germany v Argentina – the best game of the tournament for my money where the Germans once again impressed us all with their simple direct running approach and stuffed Tevez, Messi and Co 4-0. Billy rang to say we had two tickets for that night’s game, so as dusk descended we drove over to Ellis Park, home of the 1995 South African Rugby World Cup Final for the last quarter final – Spain v Paraguay. The locals appeared to have recovered from supporting Ghana and were bedecked to a man woman and child in the red and yellow of Spain. The game was tight, and ended 1-0 to the Spanish with another David Villa goal.
Definitely the roughest part of Jozi we’d been in, especially Summit Hill which we drove through accidentally, but it was swarming with very heavy police some of whom were a little too heavy-handed with ticket sellers. After the match we bought vuvuzelas for the folks back home and drove back to Melville where we met with FA contingent ‘Gravy’ and Paul Elliott who are part of England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup. We all agreed that England had a great deal to learn from the South Africans in terms of hospitality, attitude to visitors and foreigners generally, infrastrucure and overall charm. We need to woo FIFA delegates with our attitude instead of parading that entitled flex that Brazil operate on – I don’t expect the next World Cup in Brazil to feel anything like this one, or for the South American continent to feel as welcoming or united as Africa has done for these past three weeks. They’ve been the perfect hosts : warm, committed, friendly, offering shelter, food, transport and guidance. Always happy to hear we were visiting from England, how would the average English person be when confronted with African football fans at the 2018 World Cup in Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle ?
Anyway on our last day in the Rainbow Nation we went to Alexandra township which is considerably poorer and has less facilities than Soweto, where FIFA were running a Football For Hope festival which involved six-a-side games between teenagers of both sexes from many different countries – we watched Lesotho v Nigeria for example and took loads of pictures. The warmth with which we were greeted once again was quite overwhelming. What an amazing country.
Then back to Soweto once again – because Ziggy Marley is playing back at the FanPark we originally visited a week ago. As we walk in it sounds like Bob himself is singing Get Up Stand Up and it feels as if all the rastas in africa are here, the smell of ganja, the Ghana flags, the Ethiopia flags, the kids, the white people here too, and then the Jamming bassline pumps out and we bounce we stride we rock.
It’s been said before, but Bob Marley’s kids really do sound like him. As Ziggy talks about unity and economic co-operation across africa our hearts swell with hope and longing, and the band launch into “Africa Unite” and the place simply takes off. One of my moments of the World Cup without doubt.
Then it’s over and we’re done. We do come back to Soweto one more time to buy Bafana Bafana shirts and grab some lunch before our flight home. It’s been a magical three weeks in South Africa, and we feel that we will be ambassadors for this great country when we get home, tell everyone to come here and see for themselves – the forward-looking energy, the desire to make things work, the huge reserves of hope and willingness. It’s been an inspiration.
Thank you Africa ! Whoever wins the Final, it’s been a triumph for this continent, and we feel lucky to have been a part of it.