On the way into Soweto there are dozens of signs that say: ‘Welcome World’. Since our first evening in the pub in Pimville, Zone 5, drinking the local Castle beer and eating pap, surrounded by the flags of Algeria, Ivory Coast, Slovenia and Paraguay, we definitely have felt welcome. Our hands were shaken over and over again. ‘We hope you are happy here… Is everything all right?… We love you… Thank you for coming… Pleased to meet you… We are glad you are visiting us.’
‘We’, by the way, are Matt, my former university English teacher who still finds my English mistakes ‘to be very disturbing’, Simon, a BBC journalist who does not have any corrupt friends to supply us with England-USA tickets, and Ben, an Englishman who has been living in Holland for the last eight years and does a passable imitation of Afrikaans.
On our second day in Soweto, in Zone 7, we stopped by a newly laid grass football pitch where a training session of nine-year-olds was taking place. The South African government was obliged to green many of the country’s football facilities as part of the World Cup bid. ‘Are you English?’ one of the children asked. ‘Why didn’t you bring Rooney with you?’ another said. Their coach asked us if we wanted to give them a game. It may have been naive of us, but it all felt rather uplifting.
Our host, Mbuso, says that real equality in South Africa is still a long way off. He speaks Zulu, Sotho, Tswana and English, but not Afrikaans. He was sorry to hear that the captain of our flight from Heathrow to Jo’burg spoke to us only in English and Afrikaans. According to Mbuso, the fact that Soweto is a place that tourists might visit, but hardly ever white South Africans, speaks for itself. Under the surface, he says, there are still forces which differentiate the world into black and white.
But Mbuso is optimistic. The match tomorrow, when South Africa will play Mexico in the opening game of the tournament, could ‘really unite South Africa’, he says. Two decades after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the game has a symbolic significance beyond football.
After less than four days in South Africa, and while really trying not to over-glorify a country that still suffers from great poverty and violence, we have found it hard not to follow the crowd. The bafana-bafana magic, the official slogan, ‘Feel It, It’s Here,’ South African flags on each and every car mirror (yes, on the mirrors) and the story of the eradication of apartheid are impossible to resist.
Now, next to a petrol station, in the Magliesburg Mountains, surrounded by the flags of North Korea, Honduras, England and Ghana, I know which team I’m going to be cheering for. I realise that South Africa, even if they win tomorrow, may well lose their next two games. But as long as they’re still in the tournament, they have the support of one Israeli. It’s perhaps the least I can do, while not being able to forget that mine was the only country in the world which supported apartheid South Africa, selling it weapons and advising its security forces, until its very last moments.