Reflections on the World Cup and South Africa

 

I am delighted that Ms. Stefanie DeLeo has written today’s guest blog.  (Please be sure to read her bio below.) I am equally delighted to disclose that Stefanie is my cousin. She has an extensive travel background, supporting the theory that it must be something in our gene pool!  Please enjoy her commentary on the World Cup and South Africa.

When asked to write about opinions on the World Cup in South Africa, I didn’t know where to begin.  I am an American who lived and worked in South Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two and a half years.  My relationship with South Africa became a love-hate relationship that stretches my emotions from immense joy to blood boiling frustration.

I first learned about the World Cup being held in South Africa long before I was slated to move there.  I had always had a desire to go to South Africa, and my only real thoughts about the Cup being held there was, “wow, that’s so cool.”  Flash forward a few years, and I can remember being in South Africa and seeing huge countdown signs on every street and in every restaurant reading “739 days until kickoff…738 days until kickoff…”  Hard to believe we are now in the midst of it.  My thoughts after living there were no longer, “cool,” but rather, “how on earth will this country pull it off?”

In 1997 Nelson Mandela invited and welcomed the Peace Corps into South Africa with the purpose of educational reform and community development in rural black villages.  By the time my group arrived in 2007, the Peace Corps decided to expand its work into the Afrikaner community, and I was one of four volunteers selected to live in town working in a racially diverse school.  While there, I used my graduate training from New York University in Educational Theater to rewrite curriculum and use theater as a tool for socially conscious dialogue.

Though my experience was the most amazing of my life, it had its share of challenges.  The high violent crime rate, which was once just an abstract idea, was now part of daily life.  Like the local people, we lived in houses with burglar bars over the doors and windows, and going out after dark was unheard of.  All of my local friends had had brushes with crime.  The Peace Corps group before us joked that we wouldn’t officially be true South African volunteers until we got mugged – at least twice.  Another frustration included a slower pace of life and very different work ethic.  As a fast paced New Yorker, it was a daily struggle to acclimate to my new host culture.

The crime and slower pace of life, underscored with political and racial tensions, certainly left many of us wondering how a World Cup could be pulled off successfully, and yet, so far, the games have gone on without major incident.  The stadiums were completed, contrary to predictions made by the international sporting community.  In addition, the police force has mobilized and acted swiftly to keep the 350,000 plus visitors safe.

The harder thing to fathom, which has less impact on the World Cup and more impact on the country’s post-Cup life, is the racial and political tensions.  While rugby has often been considered the “white” sport, soccer has often been perceived as the “black” sport.  This is evident both in the color of the athletes, and by the majority of spectators in each sporting event.  Would the country be able to ban together to support such a huge soccer event in the same way they came together for the 1995 Rugby World Cup?

The film Invictus demonstrated how sport has served as both a political and racial unifier.  What I witnessed in the two and half years in South Africa was a shift from skepticism to pride.  Many of my South African friends shared their doubt that their country could pull this off.  By the end of my time in South Africa, many of those same people were wearing FIFA shirts and telling me how proud they were to be South African.  People of different races, cultures and languages waved the same flag as South Africa surprised everyone by tying Mexico, while the whole world watched.  This Cup has been a chance for people to be proud of where their country has been, where they are and where they certainly have the potential to be.

About the Author:

Stefanie DeLeo graduated from Eastern Nazarene College in Boston, Massachusetts (USA) in 2004, where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts with an emphasis in Theater.  After taking a year off to direct a show at a Boston middle school, she moved back to her native New York to earn her Masters Degree from New York University, in 2006, in Educational Theater.  Stefanie also recently returned from two and a half years in the Peace Corps, serving in South Africa, where she focused on theater for social change in rural schools. She has traveled extensively and has worked as director, playwright and English teacher, with two of her plays being produced in New York .  Stefanie writes for an online travel site – please see her travel video and photo that were entered into a contest. (You can feel free to vote for the video/photo if so moved). Feel free to contact Stefanie at [email protected]

South Africa’s school children
Johannesburg, one of the World Cup host cities

(Photos courtesy of Stefanie DeLeo.)