JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — World Cup 2010 has finally arrived, and South Africans are trumpeting a message to the world: “Ke Nako” — it is time.
This is a country gripped by soccer fever and ready to set aside all the usual political wrangling and corruption scandals for its time in the spotlight as the first African host of the world soccer championships.
In the days leading up to today's kickoff, South Africans have embraced their role as host and taken to the streets of Johannesburg in exuberant displays of national pride and support for their team Bafana Bafana (“The Boys”) who this afternoon will play Mexico at the striking calabash stadium in Soweto township.
The unmistakable squawk of vuvuzelas, the ear-splitting plastic trumpet beloved by South Africans, can be heard everywhere in the city, even in the sleepy northern suburbs.
At the official World Cup kickoff concert at Soweto’s Orlando Stadium Thursday night, a sold-out crowd of 36,000 people danced madly in the chilly winter night air to music by Shakira, Black Eyed Peas, Alicia Keys and Somali-born rapper K’Naan, plus homegrown favorites BLK JKS and The Parlotones.
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The crowd was a truly representative mix of multiracial South Africa, the ideal of the “Rainbow Nation,” with some foreign fans mixed in, and the scenes of unity were ones that will be repeated throughout the tournament: black and white South Africans singing and dancing together, strangers spontaneously embracing each other for photographs. An impromptu conga line kicked up and snaked along the stadium floor to the hypnotic beat of Malian band Tinariwen.
South African group Freshlyground performed with Shakira, bringing the concert to a climax with "Waka Waka" the World Cup theme song.
“We want to say to the world: “Thank you for helping this ugly, ugly worm, or caterpillar which we were, to become a beautiful, beautiful butterfly,” said a giddy Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who addressed the crowd while kitted out in a Bafana Bafana scarf, jersey and knit cap. “Africa is the cradle of humanity so we welcome you all, every single one of you. We are all Africans.”
The party began in Johannesburg’s wealthy Sandton suburb this week when an estimated 185,000 people packed the streets to cheer for the South African team, which was paraded through the sea of gold and green-clad fans in a double-decker bus. Spectators remarked that they had never seen anything like it.
On Wednesday, as children were let out of school for a month-long holiday, South Africans took to the streets at midday to mark “Vuvuzela Day.”
People in Johannesburg had been asked to drop everything and blow their vuvuzelas for a few minutes at noon, so that the sound might be heard far and wide. But they didn’t want to stop, and the vuvuzela campaign morphed into a giant street party that continued for hours across the city.
In Johannesburg’s downtown — which is beginning to be revitalized after a mass exodus of whites in the 1990s to outlying suburbs — work stopped as thousands of people poured into the streets to diski dance and blow vuvuzelas. The scene was an unusual one in urban Johannesburg: construction workers in hard hats dancing next to office workers in suits and ties, people of all races making noise together.
“It is time. And we can feel it. It is here,” said an editorial in The Times, a Johannesburg newspaper, repeating a popular local catchphrase. “Today, South Africa finds itself at one of the most significant moments in its young democracy.”
A few incidents have tempered the exuberance. The usual complaint of crime in South Africa has cropped up with the robberies of two sets of journalists here to cover the World Cup, but it is unclear whether crime will become a big issue during the tournament.
Two Portuguese journalists and one from Spain, staying in Magaliesburg, north west of Johannesburg, were robbed at gunpoint at their lodge. Police have since made three arrests.
In a separate incident, a group of Chinese journalists were robbed of camera gear in a smash-and-grab robbery from a car in Johannesburg, prompting the Chinese government to call on South Africa to ensure the safety of its citizens.
Tourists from a few European and Asian countries have been hit by thefts, but none have been injured, according to reports. The Greek national squad had a large amount of cash stolen from their hotel rooms in Umhlanga, near the Indian Ocean port city of Durban.
Transport may be a continuing problem. South Africa lacks a well-established public transit system, and at test matches transportation was chaotic, with traffic jams and confusion around stadiums. A park-and-ride system to stadiums, using shuttle buses, has proved unreliable, with tens of thousands of fans stuck for hours while waiting for buses after last night’s concert in Soweto.
With most fans driving between venues, road safety is also a concern. Two British students died and 21 other tourists were injured when their tour bus overturned near Nelspruit, the northeastern city that is hosting several World Cup matches.
On another tragic note, Nelson Mandela’s great-granddaughter was killed in a car crash shortly after leaving the World Cup kickoff concert in Soweto.
Nelson Mandela, who was rumored to be attending today’s opening match, will not attend the game after learning this morning of the death of 13-year-old Zenani Mandela, his foundation said in a statement.
The concert featured a tribute to former president Mandela, 91, who is credited with helping the country to win its World Cup bid.
“South Africa has come alive, and will never be the same after this World Cup,” President Jacob Zuma told the crowd at the Soweto concert last night. “Nelson Mandela worked hard so that we should win the right to host this tournament. We dedicate the World Cup to him.”