Watching all the coverage of Nelson Mandela's memorial in Johannesburg, I was struck by this thought: That our family's years in Johannesburg were book-ended by the two biggest events in South Africa’s recent history - the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and now the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013. We arrived in time to witness the former, and departed before we could partake in the memorial events for the latter.
In a sense, the World Cup prepared South Africa for what was to follow three years later. It focused the world’s attention on a country it had formerly more or less ignored, if not reviled. First there was apartheid to despise, and then there was the violence that followed after the end of apartheid. When we first floated the idea of moving to South Africa to our friends and family, we were met with disbelief and worse. “Why would you move to such a dangerous place?” was the consensus. Living in South Africa, everyone was convinced, must be akin to going straight to hell. A terrible place populated by terrible people who let their country slide into such a state. A view, I might add, that was shared by more than a few South Africans themselves.
What we found, of course, was quite the opposite, as anyone following this blog knows.
But it seems like it wasn't just us who learned to appreciate the wonders of South Africa. It was the entire world that started paying attention. And it was the Soccer World Cup that made this happen.
As people flocked to South Africa from all over the world, they discovered that they liked it there. It was a beautiful country, everyone realized. And crime wasn't nearly as bad as everyone thought. Or perhaps it got better through a much-overdue push by the government to rein it in just in time before the opening whistle. Whichever is the case, not only did the World Cup ever so subtly change perceptions abroad, it also changed hearts and minds at home. “We actually can do this,” people seemed to think in disbelief. “We’re not screwing it up!” The sense of pride and joy we witnessed among South Africans from all walks of life during those early days of our expat stint is one of the fondest memories I carry away with me. The street vendor selling us flags and mirror covers at the intersection. The Dainfern College kids belting out Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika during morning assemblies, wearing their “proudly South African” t-shirts. The most cynical South Africans cheering on their country’s performance in hosting the games. The Rainbow Nation on full display as blacks and whites and straights and gays and Jews and Muslims all huddled in front of the big screen TVs at Melrose Arch watching Germany give Argentina a drumming (and give England a drumming too, I can't help but point out).
The 2010 Soccer World Cup showed South Africans that they have a lot to be proud of. That they live in a desirable country, not a despised one. That the world loves them.
When concerned prospective expats ask me about crime in South Africa, I always joke that the expat's biggest fear about living in South Africa is not that they might be attacked, but that they might be told by their employer that they have to move back home. Of all the expats I have met over the years, there was not a single one who was eager to leave. Quite the contrary. Living in South Africa, to many people it seems, is like a dream come true.
Watching the memorial events for Nelson Mandela unfold on TV, I get the sense that South Africa has grown up in those three years. There seems to be none of the fretting of "can we do this," none of the soul-searching, none of the derision that preceded the World Cup (I remember a picture a friend posted with a lone decrepit soccer goal on a dirt patch with the caption "South Africa is getting ready for the FIFA World Cup" or something similarly sarcastic").
Today, in 2013, South Africa is simply proud. Grieving, but full of love and joy at the same time. And confident. It knows that all the world's eyes are on it, but there is no sense of nervousness, no fretting about organizing masses and masses of people. It knows that it is laying to rest the last great man of our times. One that could (and still can) bring together people of many different backgrounds and races.One that will never be forgotten by the world.
Next week South Africans will likely return to their regular programming and compare their own president to the one who spoke so much better, the one they'd much rather have. Next week the griping about traffic and e-tags will return, the frustration with corruption and cronyism, the fear of unsafe roads and crime, the reality of a vast underclass of poor people with hardly any running water near their homes.
But today, South Africa is the envy of the world.
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