After becoming president in 1994, Nelson Mandela believed that the communal pain of apartheid could be assuaged if South Africans united around a single event. 16 years later, his dream seems to have come true with the opening of the FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg on June 11th. Yet when relying on the world's second largest sporting event to restore a country's self image, the dream of overcoming racial tension surrendered to the reality of solving logistical concerns.
At first glance, the promotional motto for the tournament, "Feel it; it is here", represents the hoped-for bonding of black and white South Africans in support of an event that many believed the nation incapable of hosting. Only 100 days prior, FIFA had considered accepting Germany's offer to host the Cup again, should South Africa prove unprepared.
Yet pride in their "Rainbow Nation" has united South Africans. More typically a sport followed by black fans, white rugby enthusiasts such as Sean from Durban admit to being caught up in World Cup fervor.
"I'd never watched a football match before," he confessed after South Africa's opening match against Mexico.
The general sentiment following that game seemed less excitement at the team's unlikely tie, and more joyful incredulity that the tournament had actually begun.
Durban, the legendary surf town on the Indian Ocean and South Africa's third largest metropolis, put on an infrastructural showcase: a new bus line, new stadium and an army of security officers, janitorial staff, and visitor guides. Racial harmony also appeared on the agenda for World Cup preparation.
With an American Southerner's familiarity with racial tension and ethnic segregation, I admired the mix of black and white football enthusiasts at Durban's "Fan Fest", the beach party held by FIFA for the opening match. Blowing vuvuzelas, their obnoxiously loud horns, shouting "Ayoba!" in support of "Bafana Bafana," or "Boys Boys," the team's Zulu nickname, and draped in their rainbow flag, the jubilant crowd of South Africans appeared a manifestation of Mandela's vision.
A little white boy and a little black boy, both sporting the team's yellow and green jerseys, dug together in the sand, united in their castle's defense against drunken feet and oblivious to the poignancy of their play.
A mixed couple and their two daughters playing on the beach exist in living defiance of the 1948 ban on interracial marriage and sex, lifted in 1985. Still, interracial marriages represent the exception, and outside the World Cup and its accompanying tornado of marketing, racial segregation remains stark.
Following the opening match, my boyfriend and I boarded one of Durban's new "People Movers" -- buses to and from the stadium -- amid a crowd of joyous South Africans, all women, all black. Driving through downtown, an area white South Africans had warned us to avoid after dark, everyone broke into song. The only white people on the bus, we could only smile bashfully as the unknown words pulsated around us, reluctant to exit the bus even several streets past our stop. What did this feel like? Something akin to Obama winning in 2008?
Reaching our parking garage, we realized we needed smaller bills. The 200 Rand notes picked up in New York had been subject to a stiff anti-counterfeit program, and few establishments accept them. I waited in the car while my boyfriend went to speak with the car park management. When he finally returned, he was hyped up and jumpy.
"Am I glad to see you."
He explains that the car park manager told him he needed to break his 200 Rand at a nearby bar. While trying to enter, the bouncer patted him down for firearms. Inside, every patron froze in confusion at the solitary white guy. Told by the bartender that they did not accept 200 Rand notes, (He pleaded with her, "Just help me,"), he was told to try another bar. This bartender asked incredulously whether he intended to drink his 22 oz. Heineken in the bar.
"It just felt so awkward," he explains, "Everyone in there was completely aware of me. Some people winked and seemed to be saying 'Good for you.' Or rather, 'Good for us'. Others were glaring. They seemed to be saying, 'You're lucky it's the World Cup'. I'm just glad I was wearing a South Africa jersey."
Concern for foreign visitors seems another point of agreement for South Africans. Everyone has asked how we like their country. We answer that we love it.
But secretly wonder whether anything will have really changed after all the tourists go home. While Mandela's hoped-for sporting event is occurring, the reality of a healed South Africa, one in which the effects of apartheid are a distant memory, remains a dream.