The World Cup frenzy is fully on. As South Africa kicks off the first ever World Cup on the continent, the country that in 1994 captivated the world with its peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy is once more at the center of attention. What is South Africa like 16 years later? For sure, serious problems persist, including high rates of HIV/AIDS, income inequality, pervasive poverty, and violent crime. But there are also things to celebrate, and not just for soccer fans.
I had a chance to get a first-hand look at South Africa’s remarkable transformation back in 2001. As a part of an oral history project in Cape Town area, I talked to people from all walks of life, from affluent Afrikaners, to a pastor running local soup kitchen for the unemployed, to AIDS patients in impoverished townships. One such meeting in particular stands out. I met Mrs. Magoda, a busy single mother, in her small shack (“hok”) in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa largest townships located right outside of Cape Town. I was met with great warmth and hospitality. Over a cup of tea, she told me about the hardships of her life under the apartheid, of her work in a fruit canning company (I could tell – colorful labels peeled off cans doubled as wallpaper), and her hopes for the future. It was an unforgettable evening of great conversation.
I haven’t been back since and I don’t know what happened to Mrs. Magoda and her family. For sure difficult living conditions in shantytowns persist for many. Just yesterday, a group of frustrated shack dwellers threatened to set up their hokies outside Cape Town’s soccer stadium to take advantage of the World Cup publicity and show how they live.
But there is some positive change, too, even if it hasn’t reached many yet. The government has been building thousands of free homes for the homeless and arranged to make low-cost home loans to South Africans who earn less than ca. $500 a month. And townships such as Khayelitsha are no longer notorious slums they used to be. Many have become the location of choice to the country’s rising black middle class, with infrastructure and security improvements following the suit. So are services – from hairdressers to bakeries (cookie, anyone?).
Soweto, the site of the World Cup’s spectacular Soccer City stadium is a testament to that ongoing transformation. As CS Monitor puts it, “The insurgent and impoverished black townships that would have been do-not-enter zones in the early 1990s have now become tourist havens. The most famous of them all – Soweto, site of riots well into the 1990s – is ribboned with bed-and-breakfasts, gated communities, and shopping malls. (…) Today, Soweto is a neat-and-tidy black-majority suburb with better schools, supermarkets, and shopping malls, and more important, electricity, paved roads, and regular police patrols whose job is to go after criminals rather than political activists.”
That said, South Africa remains a country of contrasts, rife with political, economic, and social problems. To continue on the path of reform and empowerment of all its citizens, it must pay attention not just to physical infrastructure of places such as Khayelitsha and Soweto, but to institutional infrastructure that makes it possible to start a business and find employment. To get there, South Africans need to hold their government accountable for delivering roads and schools but also – equally important – the rule of law, quality regulation, and less corruption. South Africa is a glass-half-full-glass-half-empty story. I, for one, am cheering today for all South Africans to keep filling that cup, especially after the spotlight of the Cup goes away.