Sunday Feature: Looking Back at South Africa

One of the things I’m going to love about the World Cup in South Africa, is that it’s in South Africa.

Having traveled and worked there for a bit, when I hear recognizable names of cities, the discussions about the weather, the concerns about the infrastructure, I recollect my own excursion to South Africa and mental images drift through my mind.

My trip to RSA was in 2001, nearly 10 years ago as the World Cup rolls by. From reports, as well as the exchange rate, I can easily see that South Africa is making progress. A note on that exchange rate, when I traveled it was 12 Rand to the $1USD. Now? 7.5 Rand to the dollar. Damn me!

A brief about my trip. I traveled to Lonehill, a satellite community of Johannesburg for a few months of work at an upstart would-be National Geographic and then did a week in Capetown, one of my first surfing sojourns.

The Cape of Good about a USMNT visit?

To begin painting, South Africa is a gorgeous country. Balancing atop the Cape of Good Hope, the dramatic differences in the weather between the Atlantic Ocean (storms, great whites and cold water) and the Indian Ocean (warm, polluted water, aggressive grey sharks, mild weather conditions) have served to shape the country drastically from one kilometer to the next. Above the coasts, sits the richness of the bush–most of it animal-less as the animals that are not on game reserves have largely been butchered for food many years ago–and wide mining landscapes that still has the DeBeers family all asmiles.

My entrance to the nation–and location of the USMNT’s forthcoming action–is Jo-burg, but more precisely around Jo-burg.


Interjection: Here’s a good point to note that the crime is more rampant actually in the Johanesburg city centre, and most of the stadiums that the teams the USMNT will play in are an hour or two from those cities. That being said–and here’s a major point that you may want to take note of if you are traveling to the land of Mandela and diamonds next summer–crimminals will descend on the stadiums. From what I’ve read on the World Cup there will be ample security, but the  comparision point is the city of Capetown. A trend of moving to Capetown for South Africans late in life became popular about two decades ago. As emigration to the coastal town rose, so rose the crime. Robbers and thieves follow the money and the WC soccer stadiums will be easy pickings for the sophisticated against the unsuspected. Please be careful.


The day I arrived in RSA tells a similar tale, there was also a headline in the paper about a video circulating among gangs on how to terrorize families when robbing them.

While I rather not dwell on crime and poverty, it was both visual and a feeling elicited as I moved about the area.

Typical... (courtesy BBC)

As for the crime, just a commute from work at close of day to my bedroom (in a family home, not a hotel) should help give you an idea: Depart the work compound, arrive at a gated community with a guard at the fence. The guard opens the blockade and waves you through. Arrive at the house, open the gate, open the garage. The car progresses into the garage after the gate has closed, the garage closes. Unlock the gated door go into the house. Upstairs is yet another gate for the sleeping quarters, this gate serves to attempt protection if you are being robbed and the criminals are satisfied with the loot in the common areas. They may not try to force entry to sleeping quarters because they’ve gotten enough value on the night.

Lest I paint too dreary a picture, most of these gates are/were left unlocked and the guard waving you into the community might as well be swatting flies. The gates and guards are a deterrent, not necessarily security–a game of one-upsmanship so that burglars head to a different community with less inferred protection.

The South African Honda Civic....

A first trip down the highway illuminated the “value” of a South African life to me. Going 110kms per hour, a 30-year-old man or so casually meandered onto the highway directly in our path which led to a screech or tires, cursing from our driver and a concluding pronouncement from said driver about the hopelessness of the impoverished.

Let’s turn this story around on the roads too, because the poverty actually presents a little bit of humor. Bear with me as I know that statement sounds amazingly crass.

The roads outside the city are not unlike your typical Roadrunner cartoon…miles and miles of emptiness leading to a 4-way intersection in the middle of nowhere. While on the roads, you are likely to see a lot of vans and traveling behind them you see all four of their tires. Why is that? Because many of the vans, your typical family cruiser types, are so off alignment that you can see the front bumper, one side, those four wheels and you swear that they must be turning any second. They’re not.

Pull up alongside of one of them and you’ll find a “funnier” scene. A number of workers piled in, all smiling mind you, with probably four or even five across the front seat where the driver is steering like George Jetson. He’s not in space–though you swear you are–he’s just navigating with a wrench where the steering wheel once was. Removing that steering wheel allows carriage of one more person. Barnum & Bailey would be proud.

Lest you think the humor is just on the road, it’s also on the roadsides. On any drive, you’re likely to find everything from malformed elephant replicas to burly quilts to buy on the side of the road. In what is probably the most unusual occupation, you’ll also see the “road mechanic.”

Most mechanics advertise their trade the same way. They take whatever autoparts they have of decent size in their limited inventory and display these parts–mufflers, gears, exhaust pipes, etc.–as a near-ornate Christmas tree of grey riveted metal so that people know there is a mechanic there. There are no neon signs–or paper ones for that matter–to identify as you pull our misaligned vehicle whose shocks have collapsed from too much weight off the side of the road.

In probably the hallmark moment of an excursion though, we came upon the standard 4-way intersection with a man in a t-shirt, ripped khakis and blue cotton baseball hat….I thought him rather well-dressed…for man with tarp full of plastic spatulas in the middle of nowhere….I kid you not.

As for the terrain and landscapes, it’s in one word breathtaking. First thought as I deplaned straight to the runway in Jo-burg was, “Whoa! This is place is vast.” Africa just feels big or roomy–yes, that’s a better word. Africa feels roomy.

The highlands, Joburg and Rustenberg are just two examples, are sprawling without the word urban in front of it. After the clutter of Jo-burg spans a beautiful countryside that in many ways is like the nicest areas of Colorado before the mountains: grainy fields with sun spilling through them. There are two relatively close game reserves near Jo-burg with the nearest being Pilanesburg. If you’ve not been on safari before, just rent the Lion King–it’s not far off. The animals aren’t necessarily singing show tunes together but they do graze, live and hunt on small football-sized grids of plains together. It’s surreal to see a group of rhino, giraffe, and zebra all within one binocular lens.

Table Mountain, Capetown

Back to waters of the southern point, Capetown is like the lost sister of San Francisco who decided to become a hippy and keep living in the woods. When the clouds convene, Table Mountain lives up to its name and then some; Brandon Jennings couldn’t carry a flat top as perfectly as the city’s natural emblem.

Beyond Capetown is a wild playground of the drastic cliffs south of Nordhoek and the rollling beaches beyond Muisenberg; Atlantic vs. Indian again. If you are heading to this section of the cape for the World Cup, do not–and I mean this in all sternness–do not feed, go near, smile at, take pictures, hold up food, threaten or generally even glance at the monkeys that come down from the hills in the Cape area. If you think ultimate fighting is barbaric, you ain’t seen nothing until you see what these pests do if they sense you’ve got lunch.

Beyond the natural beauties contrasted with the crime and poverty, lies a country that was maturing and learning to prosper–together–after apartheid.

In the clubs and major affluent shopping areas, there is a better mixture of ethnicities now. You’ll pass the shanty towns still…those images will be relevant for some time; but you’ll also interact with those whose older generations may have lived there.

For the USMNT, they’ve been down to RSA before in the Confederation Cup of course. I don’t remember the dedication to description of the environment from any of the commentary this past summer, but I’m sure, as my brother tells us from his ESPN trip, that the broadcast will be chock full of great, accurate, comprehensive helping of South African history which will be great for this author to take in.



7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by mathew on 2009/12/13 at 10:40 AM

    I visited SouthAfrica about the same time. Article brought back memories.


  2. Posted by Ben on 2009/12/13 at 11:22 AM

    Interesting post. I quite agree that it’s going to be a great world cup, with a spectacular back-drop. Wise to excercise some caution regarding crime but providing you are sensible you should have a great time in SA.


  3. Posted by kaya on 2009/12/14 at 12:24 AM

    Nice piece. But why no hooting?


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2009/12/14 at 12:53 AM

      Add an “s” in there….


      • Posted by kaya on 2009/12/14 at 2:19 AM

        LOL. I kinda figured, but it was funnier to imagine hooting being an annoyance. Given their fondness for vuvuzelas, it didn’t seem like such a crazy idea.
        At least they’re polite about requesting you refrain from shooting.


  4. […] 2. The Shin Guardian: Sunday Feature: Looking Back at South Africa […]


  5. […] • From the Archives: Learn more about the culture and progressions of South Africa here. […]


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