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."

I was primed, but the only part of that which happened at Mzoli's the night I watched the Germany-Spain semifinal there was the eating. There was cutlery, as well as waitresses doling out little containers of salad. And many policemen, who escorted with amusement all the white soccer fans who feared—while they looked for—the heart of darkness to and from their cars. Totally sexy came in the form of a red, dazzlingly lit Marlboro cigarette promotion booth manned by two salespeople who insisted I call them "activators" and who told me they mostly sold their products to Europeans.

In the room where you order meat, there was one piece of decoration on the wall: a laminated copy of Jamie Oliver's article. I found myself among four white tourists peering at his assertion we were "off the beaten track." It was horribly recursive, like looking into a cage at a zoo and realizing there's nothing inside but a mirror; the exhibit is you. I fled back to my table, where my South African companion was starting to get into the whole authenticity thing himself. "We're going to have a traditional South African dessert," he told me. He'd bought a loaf of white bread and two cans of soda. "You mix the bread in your mouth with Coke. It tastes like cake."

"Whose tradition is that?" I asked.

"Construction workers'," he said.

Which brings me to the interesting thing. When I Googled recommendations for how to experience the World Cup in an authentically African manner, I expected to turn up the romanticized odes from gringos like Jamie Oliver. But I found as many South Africans searching for the real South Africa in places like Mzoli's. Mzoli's served wine, which disappointed the reporter from the local Cape Argus. "For me it just ain't the township without Black Label [beer] quarts," she complained. Fortunately, a minimart nearby sold whiskey "in a box."

I think there's an element of penance at work here, for everyone. Less than 20 years after the end of the great crime of apartheid, if the reality looks too good, we think we must be blind. So we rush into places like Mzoli's like Leontius in Plato's Republic, who curses himself for desiring to look at a pile of massacred bodies but finally tears his hands from his eyes, screaming, "Drink your fill!" Surely there are bodies behind that bottle of Mzoli's wine?

In my Cape Town apartment, I keep a South African book called the African Cities Reader, produced by Chimurenga, probably the realest magazine in the country, catering to the hip arts set. Of the book's six essays on Johannesburg, five are set in the wild, decrepit downtown, and they all reference drugs. The storyline is the broken African city with the feisty African soul, where desperate wanderers sleep on park benches while dreaming big dreams and the whole experience is totally sexy. Maybe the foreign press found a storyline that was more authentic than they knew.