R.W. Johnson

R.W. Johnson’s article in this issue is taken from some of his blog posts during the South Africa 2010 World Cup. More of his posts, and those of some other LRB contributors, can be found at lrb.co.uk/blog/world-cup-2010/

6 June. South Africa is being worked up by an endless media barrage into a state of great excitement and expectancy about the World Cup. The advertising tends to stress Africa, not just South Africa – perhaps just as well given the home team’s weaknesses. Ads show African footballing stars – Eto’o, Essien, Drogba, Pienaar – first in dreary English settings and then returning home to the African sunshine, where they’re met by vast welcoming crowds. It is Africa’s time, we are told. The clear message of the ads is that Africa is going to win the Cup. Portugal’s recent walloping of Cameroon and Holland’s thumping of Ghana in pre-tournament friendlies may have injected a dose of realism, but the media will continue to encourage all manner of fantastical expectations.

11 June. The death last night of Nelson Mandela’s 13-year-old great-grand-daughter, Zenani, has cast a considerable pall. She was on her way home from the big concert in Soweto when their car overturned near the motorway sliproad to Selby in central Jo’burg. I know that sliproad well and it is not at all challenging so my immediate reaction was that the driver must have been drunk. This turned 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 and were still sober at the end of it could probably be counted on 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. In March the main ANC spokesman was arrested for drunk driving at 8 a.m. He was three times over the limit. It was seen 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 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 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.

At least we’ve now 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.

14 June. It should have long been obvious but is now beyond doubt: the vuvuzela needs to be banned. Stupidly, in the run-up to the Cup the local authorities and media celebrated it as an authentically patriotic piece of equipment, although doctors long ago testified that to have one blown next to you throughout a football game would leave you with permanent hearing damage. The noise is considerably louder than a chainsaw and not much more melodious and it is seriously bad for the game as well as the spectators. A stadium full of such horns guarantees that the players can’t hear the ref’s whistle or their teammates’ words and that broadcasters are drowned out. The only hope lies in the fact that the stadiums aren’t full – several thousand seats were going begging at the England v. USA match at the anyway small Rustenburg stadium and the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium in Port Elizabeth hasn’t yet been more than two-thirds full.

16 June. In the run-up to the World Cup there was a constant rumble of threatened strike action by groups keen to take advantage of this unbeatable blackmail opportunity. Now, however, we have seen wildcat strikes by the stadium security guards in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg – with quite a serious clash between police and strikers in Durban – and by bus drivers, so that fans at some Jo’burg games have found there was no way for them to get home. We are also threatened by a civil service strike, and electricity workers have rejected a 8 per cent pay offer (inflation is 5 per cent) and are demanding a fantastical 15 per cent by the end of the week or they will plunge the country into darkness. Other groups of workers are watching, poised to follow suit.

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