In the early afternoon hours of May 15, 2004, I sat in the living room of a dilapidated colonial-era mansion in the Auckland Park section of Johannesburg, South Africa – just west of the center city. Vines grew into the room through the ceiling and the wood floors were worn soft. The paint chipped away in the corners of the room, showing the original plaster, the walls that I was so glad could not talk.
I had been living in Johannesburg for several months and was still shocked by the rawness of their fledgling democracy. The oppressive Apartheid regime had been gone over a decade and yet the stains of racism ran deeply. This old house surely held stories. There were strange nooks in the house, places for servants to collect items, answer beckons, or just plain hide. The leafy backyard of the property contained 4 rooms for the domestic help, rooms now used to house my African friends that lived at the house with me.
All told, a dozen or so people lived in the house. As a young missionary, I was the only American. In fact, I was the only non-African. And I liked it that way. I had completely abandoned the culture of my birth, embracing all things South African. Most exciting on that day, I had embraced soccer.
Sitting around a fuzzy television, vacillating between a black & white picture and green on green picture, were these African friends of mine. We sat awaiting the words of Sepp Blatter, the FIFA don who held the envelope which held the fate of soccer in South Africa, the envelope that contained the name of the host country of the 2010 World Cup.
On the edge of our ragamuffin couch, we watched as the bid videos for the other countries were shown. Financed with oil money and comfortably north of the Sahara, the competitors’ bids were slick and compelling. Our hearts sank as we watched in awe, imagining watching a 2010 final in Cairo.
Eventually, after the presentation of dignitaries and the commencement of formalities, the moment arrived and the envelope was opened. The card slid out with the name of the winner neatly printed for the world to see.
In a frenzy of Zulu kicks and flailing embraces, my African friends, almost in a heap, spilled into the streets. Somewhere along the way, they had grabbed their vuvuzelas and begun to join in the cacophony of horns blowing in the streets.
I sat in awe. I smiled at the reactions of my friends and of the formal nature of the FIFA ceremony. What a stark contrast…
I found myself on the verge of tears as I considered what had just been announced. Somehow, hope and unity had coalesced and descended upon the violent streets of Johannesburg. From the white-sand beaches of Cape Town to the tin shacks of Soweto, from the high-rises of Sandton to the savannah of the Kruger National Park, all of South Africa was euphoric.
The evening came and the vuvuzelas continued on into the night. The words of Sepp Blatter rang into the night along with the squawking horns.
“We can all applaud Africa. The victor is football. The victor is Africa.”
Those crumbling walls in Auckland Park added one more layer of history. They had acquired one more story to tell. On June 11th, the culmination of that story, the 2010 World Cup, will finally be upon us.