[Fwd: 'Every day brings momentous exhilarations']

Rian Malan, writer, journalist and documentary-maker, argues for living
on the edge in South Africa.

The Observer, Sunday 16 May 2010

It's a sunny weekday afternoon in Jo'burg, and I am lunching with
friends at an outdoor restaurant. The joint we're in was hit by armed
robbers earlier this week. The newspapers on the table are full of
hair-raising tribulations – our former police chief on trial for
bribery, commuter buses shot up by murderous taxi bosses who won't
tolerate competition, and elders of the African National Congress
declining to sign the charge sheet against Julius Malema, the
controversial youth leader who made global headlines the other day by
endorsing Robert Mugabe, the cocky little psychopath who ruined
neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Malema is now facing disciplinary charges, but no one in the ruling
party is willing to take the risk of being identified as his accuser.
This is worrying. Are racist demagogues winning the battle for control
of the ANC? Are decent black men scared to take a stand lest they find
themselves alongside whites, trussed up in the missionary cooking pot
while Malema lights a fire beneath us? In a normal society, such
questions would induce nervous breakdown, but my mates and I are
laughing. We're sitting in the African sun, sharing jokes, and wondering
how to con foreigners into coming here for the World Cup.

Once upon a time, South Africans imagined that this soccer extravaganza
would make us all rich. Myself, I struggled to believe that half a
million football tourists would cross the planet in the midst of a
brutal recession to visit a country best known for its high crime rate.
My neighbours scoffed, preferring to believe they would make a killing
by renting out their homes. Alas. Bookings are running at about half the
anticipated level. Would-be scalpers are stuck with tickets they can't
even give away, and Fifa's gluttonous marketing arm has reportedly
managed to lease only 1% of the luxury private boxes in our enormously
expensive new stadia.

I am rather enjoying the resulting cries of pain. Fifa has made a monkey
out of South Africa, encouraging us to spend billions we don't have on
football stadiums we don't need in the absurd belief that we could
recoup our losses by gouging football tourists whose willingness to come
here was always in doubt. Our own leaders collaborated enthusiastically,
partly because they relished the glory of presiding over an event of
World Cup stature, but also because they were eager to participate in
murky backroom deals that saw politically connected individuals reaping
obscene profits on taxpayer-funded construction contracts. Now we're all
saddled by debts it will take generations to pay off. I'm so riled that
part of me would be gratified if the World Cup were a complete failure.

But South Africa is a complicated country, and there's always another
side of the story. As I write, a certain Mrs Gladys Dladla is ironing
clothes in my kitchen. Gladys is an old-school Zulu matriarch,
struggling heroically to maintain a huge family on her meagre earnings
as my once-a-week char. She lacks the wherewithal to bribe officials who
control access to state housing, so she's lived in a tin shack for 16
years. In recent weeks, getting to work has become a frightening ordeal
thanks to renewed tensions between police and the aforementioned taxi
thugs. Gladys's life seems entirely miserable, but she always shows up
on time, chattering cheerfully about church and her hope that God and
the ancestral spirits will soon guide us to victory in the national
lottery. Gladys and I have a little syndicate going.

The World Cup is an event of huge symbolic importance to Mrs Dladla. In
the next several weeks, oily ANC politicians will attempt to convince
you that this tournament is a tribute to their heroic victory over
apartheid and associated triumphs of the human spirit. Hm. For people
like Gladys, the longing for success is actually rooted in despair.
They're so tired of being losers and also-rans, trapped at the bottom of
a society that constantly threatens to degenerate into just another
African basket case. Their dream was that in June 2010 the world's eyes
would descend on us, and at last find something to admire.

Mrs Dladla looks on these things with enormous pride. She feels that
their glory reflects on her directly, and besides, there's always the
hope that football tourism might generate jobs for her unemployed
offspring. She was a great supporter of short-lived plans to turn my
rambling old home into a cheap doss house for football hooligans. In the
end, I baulked at paying tribute to Fifa, whose lawyers crushed all
attempts to market World Cup lodgings through any channels other than
their own. Just as well, because our doss house would most likely have
failed anyway.

So now we stand before you with clean hands. We have nothing to gain
from the World Cup but the pleasure of your company, so it would be nice
if you changed your minds about coming. Please! We've almost bankrupted
ourselves in our determination to stage a tournament that runs like
clockwork. And if it doesn't – you can have a chuckle at our expense.

Last week's newspapers reported a state of abject unreadiness among the
pom-pom girls scheduled to perform at the opening ceremony. A day or two
later, President Jacob Zuma informed America that we have the laziest
and most useless civil service on the planet. Elsewhere such an
admission would have precipitated the government's downfall. Here, the
story was relegated to page five.

I struggle to see how anyone can resist a country where such things
happen. South Africa is amazing! At any given moment, all possible
futures seem entirely plausible. We are winning, we are losing. We are
progressing even as we hurtle backwards. Every day brings momentous
exhilarations and dumbfounding setbacks, and the sun shines brightly
even in winter. Throw in the heady proximity of Mandela and Beckham, and
you're almost guaranteed a splendid time.

As for crime, well, yes, crime is a threat, but our police have been
given orders to smash anyone who so much as touches a hair on any
football fan's head. If you book now, you'll arrive just in time to
catch a last glimpse of our fading rainbow, and the first stirrings of
our next upheaval.

If that sounds alarming, I wouldn't worry. There is much to be said for
living on the edge, in a place shot through with "heart space and the
danger of beauty", as the Boer poet Breytenbach once phrased it. Britain
seems pallid in comparison. We are told that your election was an event
of epochal significance, but from Jo'burg, it looked boring – three nice
white men with almost identical opinions jostling for space on the same
centrist pinhead. As for the prospect of a hung parliament… you call
that a crisis? Good God. We have far worse, every day, before breakfast.
And we're still laughing. Better get here before we stop.


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