R.W. Johnson · The World Cup Begins

So, finally we've kicked off. South Africa v. Mexico was pretty dull and scrappy, a typical over-cautious World Cup opener with both sides desperate to maintain position. Neither could afford to lose this game whereas a draw keeps them alive. But, that said, South Africa, ranked 83rd in the world, didn't really look much inferior to Mexico, ranked 17th, and certainly the fans here liked it. (The fact that Mexico were able to equalise so quickly made one wonder whether it was only when they went one down that they really turned it on a bit.)

The last few days have not been easy. The Opposition Democratic Alliance is still trying to resurrect the corruption charges against President Zuma that were conveniently dropped as soon as he came to office. Zuma's lawyers have frantically pleaded that to continue with the charges now would jeopardise the World Cup. Since the whole country is up in arms against anythjing that could jeopardise the Cup, this is a smart plea if one with a brief life.

The police are relieved that not only has Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, not rolled up (they'd be obliged to arrest him) but neither has Libya's Muammar Gadaffi, who has the most elaborate security arrangements of any head of state ever to visit South Africa. On the other hand President Mugabe and 20 other African heads of state have made it to the opening ceremony, presenting enough of a security headache.

So far violent incidents have been remarkably few. Three Britons have been killed in a bus crash, a Korean broadcaster was attacked and throttled in central Jo'burg but, though unconscious, he survived with only the loss of his passport and £1100. Three Chinese journalists on their way to last night's concert in Soweto had their car window smashed in and camera equipment stolen. But the police are clearly trying much harder than usual and have actually caught the three robbers who held up three Portuguese journalists at gunpoint on Wednesday and some of the stolen goods were recovered, which is almost a record.

However, the death last night of Nelson Mandela's 13-year-old great-grand-daughter, Zenani, has cast a considerable pall. She was killed on her way home from the big concert in Soweto where she had been with Winnie Mandela when their car overturned near the motorway sliproad to Selby in central Jo'burg. I know that particular sliproad well and it is not at all challenging so my immediate reaction was that the driver must have been drunk. This turns out to be correct and he has been charged with culpable homicide.

While it may seem unbelievably lax for the chauffeur of, effectively, the country's royal family to get drunk, the truth is that the number of men who partied till after midnight at the Soweto concert and were still sober at the end of it could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is one reason the road accident rate is six times higher here than in the UK. Drunk driving in South Africa is so common that it is hardly regarded as serious. Last month the main ANC spokesman was arrested for drunk driving at 8 am. He was three times over the limit. It was treated as a minor offence and he has kept his job.

Within hours of the news of Zenani's death appearing on the website of the Mail and Guardian a reader commented: 'Pity that it wasn't Winnie killed instead.' South Africans tend to have a somewhat crude taste in such matters. A few years ago a party of Japanese tourists in a game reserve saw a pride of lions. Disobeying the very strict instructions not to get out of their vehicle, they got out to photograph the lions. They were quickly killed and eaten. Within a few weeks there were TV ads featuring comical Asian foreigners saying 'Ah so' as they hastened to dismount from their car in a game reserve. The ad (all about insurance risks, as I recall) was thought to be extremely funny though it was quickly taken off, presumably as a result of diplomatic intervention.

But at least we've crossed the starting line. The whole country is psyched up and, remarkably, tomorrow's rugby game between France and South Africa is seen almost as a sideshow. In a country where rugby frequently leads the TV and radio news bulletins, this alone is a sort of miracle.


  • 12 June 2010 at 7:23am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    From the little that I saw of the opening game the South African team was full of energy but very nervous. Like the crowd and millions of South Africans. I wonder how many incidents of the kind you mention occurred in the World Cup in 2006 in Germany - I suspect that there were more drunk drivers and just as many robberies as in South Africa but I have no evidence to support this. The crunch will be when SA are eliminated - will the happy millions forgive them?

    • 12 June 2010 at 7:48am
      Imperialist says: @ Geoff Roberts
      South Africans had pretty modest expectations for the team, but following a run of excellent form - we've now played thirteen games without losing - and Tshabalala's wonder goal, anything less than qualifying for the next round will be hard to take. With France and Uruguay looking tame, and Mexico in dangerous touch, it doesn't feel immodest to say ke nako Bafana!

    • 13 June 2010 at 4:14pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Imperialist
      I wish you luck! England will be out after the group unless a miracle happens.