Sunday, July 25, 2010

Expat South Africans celebrate the World Cup

Obviously, hosting the World Cup was a very big deal for South Africa. I decided to celebrate history by heading to Washington, DC, a nearby city with South Africans in it. Here in Sunbury, PA, I’m the only South African I know—I’m almost sure I’m the only one in town, although the local Amish do make a milk pie that’s very similar to the milk tart the Afrikaner aunties in the Kruger National Park staff village sold at bake sales. Here is an unpublished report I wrote about it for the online press:

It’s Opening Game, and I’m standing in the normally august second-floor meeting rooms of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC. Wooden parquet floors stretch out under the rows of seats and the tables laden with Nederberg Pinotage, to the ornate Federal-style windows. Three large-screen television sets, framed by South African flags, have been set up here, and three-hundred-odd expatriate South Africans of all races mill and cheer the national team.

“The world’s greatest show,” proclaim the FIFA World Cup T-shirts visible everywhere, and it’s easy to believe this morning: vuvuzela trumpets blast below the signs advertising South Africa as an investment destination. Fans in Bafana Badana jerseys—many of them speaking in twangy American accents, with New York Yankee baseball caps—bang together bambams. Makarapa helmets are visible everywhere. I keep waiting for the police to arrive, armed with that ubiquitous feature of US life, a neighbors’ noise complaint, but they do not.

Even the country’s draw with Mexico—an early harbinger of what will turn out to be Bafana’s lackluster performance in the tournament as a whole—fails to dampen the exuberance visible over the thick pap corn porridge and boerewors sausage, served up for lunch courtesy of Brand South Africa, the government’s international marketing project.

Support for the World Cup is all but universal.

“Fantasic!” says Lisa, a Namibian business student at Howard University. “Africa’s showing the world what we can do.”

“With all the divisions in our country right now, this is something that can pull the different population groups together,” agrees Thembile, a local property manager.

He’s referring to the Malema controversy back home, and the many ongoing racial disparities in health, employment, and education; yet, when I press him, he admits the point might as easily apply to this get-together itself. The South African expatriate community in D.C., like those in the rest of North America, is notoriously fragmented largely along racial lines, with whites mostly meeting for braais (barbecues) and rugby, and blacks for church, funerals, picnics, soccer, and lively African dance parties.

“Yes, this is a new departure for us,” confirms Deputy Mission Chief Johnny Moloto. “We want to build on the successes of the World Cup and reach out to the expatriate community.”

Stephanie, a middle-aged nurse from Lesotho, speaks more bluntly: “Usually the embassy events are elite jacket and tie events. The World Cup is bringing the embassy home to the people. This is the first time I’ve ever seen such a mixture of people at an expat event.”

At times this bash seemed a miniature version of the World Cup Celebratory Concert screened the night before. Kwela music-legend Khola Phalatse strummed on the guitar in the fenced back garden. Ululations rose into the air.

Yet the national unity was hardly complete. Earlier that morning, I’d stopped by Solly’s U Street Tavern for another World Cup celebration—one organized by the local, predominantly white group for South African expatriates.

That event was an altogether quieter affair. Beneath a starred-and-striped poster advertising “Solomon Lowell Mayor” twenty or so soccer fans, overwhelmingly white, demurely sipped vodka and cranberry juice on metal bar stools. The single, occasional vuvuzela bellow from Brenard, a blonde man sitting in the corner, seemed rather incongruous. The general North American ambiance belied the slogan on the back of the T-shirt of the white man in front of me: “I am an African.”

“We didn’t really know about the embassy event,” Robyn, the group’s organizer explained later, over the phone. “Our gathering was planned six months ahead of time. Besides, our members don’t like dealing with parking and transport problems.”

She had a point: at the embassy, I saw cars double-parked in the lots off Massachusetts Avenue. As the festivities wound down, drunken party-goers swayed and jay-walked to Adams Morgan Metro stop, thirty minutes away.

Still, the symbolism seemed inescapable: for all the money and energy spent on uniting DC expatriates behind “Brand South Africa,” these supporters had remained isolated. In some ways, their reasons probably mirrored those of the South Africans back home who decided to avoid the vuvuzela racket, the teeming crowds, and the chaos on the roads: Africa’s usual benign, vibrant messiness.

“That was an oversight on our part,” Moloto acknowledges. “They should have been invited. That day was important for us as a nation. We should have all been together.”

As South Africa plunged into its post-Uruguay hangover, with striking security guards at Ellis Park and leading national commentators complaining about the tournament’s cost, his words seemed like a possible metaphor for the Cup itself.