South Africa has until June to show the world that it too can hang with such soccer giants as Germany and France — the previous two World Cup hosts.
"Africa is huge," said Mary Tiseo, executive director of South Africa Partners, a Boston nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering partnerships between South Africa and the United States. "It is a major player in any sort of global activity, and yet we don’t think about it."
South Africa won the right to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup by beating out Morocco, Libya and Egypt in May 2004. Johnny Moloto, deputy chief of mission at the South African embassy in Washington D.C. called it a “very phenomenal” development.
Ten stadiums have been renovated to host tournament matches, the largest one holding 94,900 seats. New roads were paved. New jobs were created. Inter-regional trade talks have already begun with South Africa’s neighboring countries.
"We see it as a larger program that transcends the event itself," Moloto said. "It’s improved our confidence."
Moloto added that international news coverage has increased as well.
"For at least six months, the world will see Africa in a different way." Tiseo said. "It won’t be about famine. It won’t be about disease. It won’t be about hunger."
Most of the media’s attention on South Africa over the last three decades has centered on the AIDS epidemic. But that’s just a small piece of the country.
"People will get to see all these stories about everyday life in South Africa, which is not that different than everyday life in Boston," said Tiseo, who’s been traveling to South Africa for 20 years and counting. "Those images that they’re going to see on television are going to be very, very familiar. It’ll be like Chicago or Los Angeles or any number of cities in the United States."
The world caught a glimpse of South Africa last June when ESPN aired the U.S. national team’s shocking 2-0 victory over Spain in the Confederations Cup. Days later, 3.94 million people tuned in to watch Brazil beat the Americans 3-2 in the tournament final. Both games were sold out, well-managed and ultimately showed what South Africa can do on a global scale.
According to Tiseo, the world also is going to get to see the funny side of South Africa, with its clever commercials promoting the World Cup and the creativity of its “incredible” apparel designs.
"You’re going to meet lots of people who are going to get interviewed on the street who are going to be doctors and lawyers and shopkeepers, and they’re going to feel very much more familiar than people realize," Tiseo said. "They’re actually going to be able to see themselves in the people who are highlighted in the country."
Moloto believes that South Africans will be an integral part of a tourist’s experience. Tourism is growing rapidly. More than 2 million World Cup tickets have been sold, 84,000 of them bought by fans in the United States, making the Americans second in ticket sales.
"Come to South Africa, you’ll feel the warmth of the people," Moloto said. "As you touch down at the airport, people are warm, welcoming."
Moloto added that tourists will leave South Africa with new friendships and lasting impressions of a country that “embraces life,” which is the result of one man’s lifelong effort.
Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup
The United States had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. India had Mahatma Gandhi. And South Africa has Nelson Mandela.
Millions of black South Africans suffered through decades of civil unrest, beatings, discrimination and even death, all under apartheid. Everything was segregated, from public water fountains to sports. Blacks played soccer. Whites played rugby. Nevertheless, Nelson Mandela believed in and preached unity. He even endured almost 27 years in prison in his fight for a unified nation. When he was released in February 1990 and elected president four years later, he continued his fight with one goal in mind: to unify black and white South Africans. And his catalyst was sports.
"Sometimes we think about sports as a big, flashy event, and then we downplay some of the social significances," said Eli Wolff, research and advocacy manager with Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "But South Africa has been one of the pioneers in terms of the intensive struggles that it’s had around race and disability."
Mandela saw the 1995 Rugby World Cup as the venue to achieve his goal of a unified nation, and he sought rugby star François Pienaar to be his quarterback.
Pienaar was South Africa’s premier rugby player, as Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated Invictus depicted. Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, captained the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team. Afrikaners, South Africa’s white population, loved the Springboks. Blacks saw the team as a symbol of apartheid. However, Mandela, Morgan Freeman’s character, was determined to unite blacks and whites. He invited Pienaar to his office and told him of his plan to unify South Africa using the Springboks and the Rugby World Cup. Pienaar understood immediately that Mandela wanted them to win the Cup.
Pienaar and the Springboks toured South African neighborhoods, parading their skills and camaraderie in front of large crowds. During the Cup, they defeated Western Samoa, France and ultimately the No.1-ranked New Zealand All Blacks to win the gold.
According to Moloto, the feeling of victory emerged minutes before the World Cup final began, when Mandela stepped onto the field donning a Springboks jersey. He proudly wore the No. 6 jersey in honor of Pienaar, an Afrikaner and dear friend.
Moloto said there was live streaming of the Cup throughout the country. He was at a park in his hometown when he saw Mandela walk out onto the field.
"If you know our history, rugby was always a segregated sport. But when Mandela came out in the Springboks jersey, it really was a defining moment," Moloto said. "It was the cherry on top."
When South Africa won the Rugby World Cup, Mandela gave the trophy to Pienaar, shook his hand in gratitude and said,“Thank you very much for what you have done for our country.”
Pienaar looked Mandela in the eyes and said, "No … you’ve got it wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa."
It was the beginning of a new era.
"There’s been individual characters, individual ambassadors – whether it’s been Muhammad Ali, whether it’s been Tommy Smith and John Carlos – different kind of change agents that have emerged in different moments in time," said Wolff. "The one thing that’s always interesting historically is oftentimes these moments are lost. We can forget about them, and then we forget about the notion of the power of sports."
Wolff believes using sports for social change is very effective, as Mandela and Pienaar demonstrated.
"It was a very inspirational story following a very inspirational leader," said Moloto. "It’s one of the milestone events that really brought the country together."
Moloto said that South Africa hosting and winning the Rugby World Cup was an “affirmation of their abilities.” Because South Africa lost the bid to host the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Tiseo knows that South Africa hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup will change people’s perception of the country worldwide.
"They are [a] capable and well-functioning society," Tiseo said. "That’s, I think, going to be the greatest gift … that we’re left with after the World Cup, that we’re going to see South Africa, and by association Africa, differently."