At the World Cup, Searching for the 'Real' South Africa

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What does one wear to go watch soccer in the real South Africa? I have the jersey of a local team, the Orlando Pirates—will that be good camouflage? Or will it make me look like a poser? Maybe I should just put on a parka and hand sanitizer and throw a hospital bag with extra clothes into the trunk, for my next two days in the overdose ward. I am, after all, going to watch a game at Mzoli's Meat in the black township of Gugulethu, which means I will be freezing, eating my food without utensils, and probably consuming large quantities of alcohol.

Alas, none of this ended up happening. It seems I'm alone among foreign correspondents in failing to score a dirty-sexy Africa experience during this soccer season. It's the first African World Cup, and we came here needing to see something, well, African. The images that came easily were all wrong. The stadiums were too shiny, the hotels too continental. An anxiety began to creep in that we weren't getting the real story.

And so the race was on to cover the games in a more authentically "African" setting. The BBC team watched Ghana's match against Uruguay from the "African Corner" restaurant in a ghetto called Yeoville. One crewman told me it was "amazing," with people dancing in the streets—although the authenticity was very slightly dampened by the spotting of an al-Jazeera TV crew in the same vicinity. The Canadian newspapermen watched Bafana Bafana versus France in Sakhumzi, a well-known shebeen—the old apartheid-era name for an underground bar—in the famous black township of Soweto. "Not far away, the tin shacks and scorched earth of the Soweto slums reflect the grim reality that continues to plague the Rainbow Nation," one of them noted in his post-game report, although mysteriously, the patrons inside seemed happy.

Down in Cape Town, everybody looking for authenticity with their soccer was directed to Mzoli's. The Malawian cab driver who drove him there—a.k.a. "my new friend Charles"—promised the American sportswriter John Walters the real deal: no waitresses, no cutlery, a great vibe with a dash of danger. If he got lucky, he might even have a chance to have that quintessentially South African adventure, getting robbed on the toilet. We constantly read that South Africa has some of the worst inequality in the world, and so if the stadiums look so good, ordinary life has to look equally bad. That's why even the foreign press's ostensibly admiring reports from local watering-holes have been vaguely damning. Some journalists cut the shebeen shtick altogether and wrote straight travelogues through harrowing landscapes of want.

Boris Johnson, the London mayor-cum-Daily Telegraph columnist, found that the only beacon of hope in ordinary South Africa was a "nice one-eyed woman called Mary" who let him tour her house. Mary's house had no heat, no TV—and, we learn, "no cooker except for a couple of electric rings." This is a strange description, and while far be it from me to deny the hardships surely visited on Mary by her one eye, it sounds suspiciously like a euphemism for a stove.

I tried to watch the World Cup in the real South Africa, I did. Mzoli's, in the run-up to the tournament, was visited by Jamie Oliver, England's Naked Chef, who verified it was fabulously native. "It's a real experience, driving into serious poverty, no police around," he wrote in Jamie Magazine (yes, this really exists). "I knew we were going off the beaten track." The alcohol is "booze," the music is bass-heavy, and the girls are naturally hot, not like the British women with "their big sunglasses." He found the no-cutlery thing particularly awesome. "It's so hot out there that they just can't be hanging meat like we do in Europe. Just kill it. Gut it. Skin it. Eat it," he panted. "People might think this is the wrong word, but for me, the whole experience was totally sexy."

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Eve Fairbanks is a writer living in South Africa as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She also contributes to the Afrikaans-language newspaper Rapport.

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