The Observer, Sunday 16 May 2010
'Every day brings momentous exhilarations and dumbfounding setbacks'
Rian Malan, writer, journalist and documentary-maker, argues for living on the edge in South Africa
It's a sunny weekday afternoon in Jo'burg, and I am lunching with friends at an outdoor restaurant. The joint we're in was hit by armed robbers earlier this week. The newspapers on the table are full of hair-raising tribulations – our former police chief on trial for bribery, commuter buses shot up by murderous taxi bosses who won't tolerate competition, and elders of the African National Congress declining to sign the charge sheet against Julius Malema, the controversial youth leader who made global headlines the other day by endorsing Robert Mugabe, the cocky little psychopath who ruined neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Malema is now facing disciplinary charges, but no one in the ruling party is willing to take the risk of being identified as his accuser. This is worrying. Are racist demagogues winning the battle for control of the ANC? Are decent black men scared to take a stand lest they find themselves alongside whites, trussed up in the missionary cooking pot while Malema lights a fire beneath us? In a normal society, such questions would induce nervous breakdown, but my mates and I are laughing. We're sitting in the African sun, sharing jokes, and wondering how to con foreigners into coming here for the World Cup.
Once upon a time, South Africans imagined that this soccer extravaganza would make us all rich. Myself, I struggled to believe that half a million football tourists would cross the planet in the midst of a brutal recession to visit a country best known for its high crime rate. My neighbours scoffed, preferring to believe they would make a killing by renting out their homes. Alas. Bookings are running at about half the anticipated level. Would-be scalpers are stuck with tickets they can't even give away, and Fifa's gluttonous marketing arm has reportedly managed to lease only 1% of the luxury private boxes in our enormously expensive new stadia.
I am rather enjoying the resulting cries of pain. Fifa has made a monkey out of South Africa, encouraging us to spend billions we don't have on football stadiums we don't need in the absurd belief that we could recoup our losses by gouging football tourists whose willingness to come here was always in doubt. Our own leaders collaborated enthusiastically, partly because they relished the glory of presiding over an event of World Cup stature, but also because they were eager to participate in murky backroom deals that saw politically connected individuals reaping obscene profits on taxpayer-funded construction contracts. Now we're all saddled by debts it will take generations to pay off. I'm so riled that part of me would be gratified if the World Cup were a complete failure.
But South Africa is a complicated country, and there's always another side of the story. As I write, a certain Mrs Gladys Dladla is ironing clothes in my kitchen. Gladys is an old-school Zulu matriarch, struggling heroically to maintain a huge family on her meagre earnings as my once-a-week char. She lacks the wherewithal to bribe officials who control access to state housing, so she's lived in a tin shack for 16 years. In recent weeks, getting to work has become a frightening ordeal thanks to renewed tensions between police and the aforementioned taxi thugs. Gladys's life seems entirely miserable, but she always shows up on time, chattering cheerfully about church and her hope that God and the ancestral spirits will soon guide us to victory in the national lottery. Gladys and I have a little syndicate going.
The World Cup is an event of huge symbolic importance to Mrs Dladla. In the next several weeks, oily ANC politicians will attempt to convince you that this tournament is a tribute to their heroic victory over apartheid and associated triumphs of the human spirit. Hm. For people like Gladys, the longing for success is actually rooted in despair. They're so tired of being losers and also-rans, trapped at the bottom of a society that constantly threatens to degenerate into just another African basket case. Their dream was that in June 2010 the world's eyes would descend on us, and at last find something to admire.
Mrs Dladla looks on these things with enormous pride. She feels that their glory reflects on her directly, and besides, there's always the hope that football tourism might generate jobs for her unemployed offspring. She was a great supporter of short-lived plans to turn my rambling old home into a cheap doss house for football hooligans. In the end, I baulked at paying tribute to Fifa, whose lawyers crushed all attempts to market World Cup lodgings through any channels other than their own. Just as well, because our doss house would most likely have failed anyway.
So now we stand before you with clean hands. We have nothing to gain from the World Cup but the pleasure of your company, so it would be nice if you changed your minds about coming. Please! We've almost bankrupted ourselves in our determination to stage a tournament that runs like clockwork. And if it doesn't – you can have a chuckle at our expense. Last week's newspapers reported a state of abject unreadiness among the pom-pom girls scheduled to perform at the opening ceremony. A day or two later, President Jacob Zuma informed America that we have the laziest and most useless civil service on the planet. Elsewhere such an admission would have precipitated the government's downfall. Here, the story was relegated to page five.
I struggle to see how anyone can resist a country where such things happen. South Africa is amazing! At any given moment, all possible futures seem entirely plausible. We are winning, we are losing. We are progressing even as we hurtle backwards. Every day brings momentous exhilarations and dumbfounding setbacks, and the sun shines brightly even in winter. Throw in the heady proximity of Mandela and Beckham, and you're almost guaranteed a splendid time.
As for crime, well, yes, crime is a threat, but our police have been given orders to smash anyone who so much as touches a hair on any football fan's head. If you book now, you'll arrive just in time to catch a last glimpse of our fading rainbow, and the first stirrings of our next upheaval.
If that sounds alarming, I wouldn't worry. There is much to be said for living on the edge, in a place shot through with "heartspace and the danger of beauty", as the Boer poet Breytenbach once phrased it. Britain seems pallid in comparison. We are told that your election was an event of epochal significance, but from Jo'burg, it looked boring – three nice white men with almost identical opinions jostling for space on the same centrist pinhead. As for the prospect of a hung parliament… you call that a crisis? Good God. We have far worse, every day, before breakfast. And we're still laughing. Better get here before we stop.
POSTED BY: R. TALOR- EASTERN CAPE