Race Politics in Free State

South Africa's final World Cup match will take place on Tuesday in Bloemfontein, the capital of Free State. Declared a sovereign nation by the Boers during their war with the English at the end of the 19th century, the province's name remains apropos to its citizens' independence. The Voortrekkers -- Dutch-descended semi-nomadic herdsmen opposed to British control -- established their stronghold in Free State in the 1800's. The region retains its autonomy, both from the crime rates experienced in urban centers, and in some cases to the attitudes celebrated by "new" South Africa.

Free State has experienced fewer of the benefits generated by the country's 3.2% GDP growth than the coastal areas and capital. Mary,* a white resident of Dealesville, a tiny town 67 km west of Bloemfontein, explains that rural farmers benefit little from the country's economic growth.

"It's so dry out here, farming is hard. Most of the young people go to the cities, it's the older folk that are left."

On rural highways, tiny towns like Dealesville are few and potholes are plenty. The stadium in Bloemfontein, expanded to hold 40,000, remains the smallest in the tournament. Pre-World Cup preparation occurred on a smaller scale. In coastal Durban, for example, the local government changed many of the road names -- vestiges of colonialism and apartheid rule -- prior to welcoming international visitors. Mary laughs at such a notion:

"If you want to start a war in Free State, try changing the names."

She admits that life has not altered significantly, for blacks or whites, since apartheid. "Blacks still eat separately, they have their own dishes and their own bathrooms in some places."

She proudly explains that she speaks Sesotho, the African language of Free State, although acknowledges that few whites do, or understand the cultural differences that sometimes exacerbate racial tension.

"In our culture, for example, a man would open a door for a lady to enter. In theirs, a man would go first to make sure the area is safe. But [white] people don't always know this, and so they think the blacks are being disrespectful."

White farmers have been victim to attack by blacks, although Mary believes that media coverage rarely explains that killings are often motivated by the events of apartheid. Sometimes acts committed by the individual twenty years ago make them a target for revenge, sometimes violence is directed against whites simply for the crimes of their race.

Yet while nightmares of the past persist all over South Africa, Free State at least offers respite from the stressors of the present. Trevor*, a young black resident of Kimberley, explains that he returned to Free State after working in Johannesburg.

"Life is calmer here; there's not the same level of crime."

Kimberley, just within the border of the neighboring North Cape region, is home to De Beers' original diamond mine. Both white and black residents of the surrounding area suffered exploitation during the rush that followed the 1871 discovery of diamonds and culminated in De Beers gaining control of all diamonds in the area, and later the world.

Yet the manipulation of racial prejudice during the diamond rush -- most blacks were prevented from staking claims while poor whites' were bought out only later -- succeeded in widening the color gap.

The depth of racial division became apparent during Thursday's match between Nigeria and Greece.

Danielle*, a white South African from Bloemfontein, backs Nigeria. She explains before the match that many of the people cheering for Nigeria are actually South Africans supporting a fellow African nation, while the Greek supporters have traveled from Greece.

The stadium appears packed with fans from both countries. However, while sitting amidst a crowd sporting blue and white and chanting "Ellas!", Danielle learns that the apparent Greeks are also South African. Some have Greek heritage, others do not, but all are white. Nigeria's supporters, on the other hand, are almost entirely black. She asks a South African Greece fan how he could betray his continent, then asks disbelievingly whether he speaks Afrikaans (the test of a true white South African). He does, and bellows with his vuvuzela as Greece secures its victory.

Still, post-match camaraderie prevails. Walking away from the stadium, a white South African sells beer and grilled boerewors from his garage. A crowd of Nigeria supporters gather to dance -- they come from Soweto, outside Johannesburg, an area in which race riots erupted in 1976. White and black fans party together. The temporary Greeks admit that when South Africa plays, they are Bafana fans.

Although South Africa's defeat by Uruguay lost them the chance of moving on to the next round, the experience of cheering together for their soccer team will perhaps facilitate the embrace of a new "new" South Africa: a country whose past can be celebrated by all.