As most people know by now, the big idea about staging the World Cup in South Africa, the grand experiment, is trying to change the perception of the country, and perhaps a continent. So: is it working?For fans watching at home, who see nothing but beautiful stadiums and clean, green grass pitches, I suspect it is. (Moaners decry the vuvuzela, other fans don’t, but that’s as it should be: a true soccer fan is, after all, an epic pedant.) The real test, I’d venture, is among the hundreds of thousands of fans over here. Has the tournament changed their minds on Africa? To that end, today I joined a crowd of a few hundred England supporters as they toured the former apartheid prison, Robben Island.
We had illustrious guides. Lionel Davis is a 74-year-old artist and former co-inmate of Nelson Mandela’s in B-section, where the highest category prisoners were kept in solitary cells. Siddiq Levy had also done two years in Robben Island. Chuck Korr wrote a book, More Than Just a Game, about the meticulously organized football league that prisoners formed on Robben Island during the apartheid years. They showed us the cells where Mandela and others were imprisoned. Davies gave a talk on the daily routine. Siddiq showed us the limestone quarry where prisoners dug rock and, occasionally, were buried in the sand up to their necks and urinated upon by warders.
Reaction seemed mixed. In the courtyard outside Mandela’s cell, England fans unfurled giant, personalized St George flags.”Anne, Alan, Daventry” read one; “Serena + Dave: Just Married,” read another. They dropped jackets on the grounds for goalposts and photographed each other in shot-saving poses. An England fan-wife remarked to her fan-wide friend: “I started the Nelson Mandela book, but I didn’t get very far – you get so busy, you know, just getting ready to come away.”
But Robben Island resonates. “The tone in his voice,” said a middle-aged man of Siddiq. “You can tell he’s still pretty angry. Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?” The country seems to be touching the fans too. Mark Knapper, 51, shaved head, from Stevenage in southern England, cheerfully admitted: “I came here for the football.” And while he’d found that, he’d discovered a lot more. His supporters club were touring the country by bus. So far they’ve seen Johannesburg, Kimberley and Rustenberg, and played a game in Soweto and inside a Joburg jail. “It has completely blown me away,” he said. “The thing that sticks with me is the pride. And I’ve found that, since I’ve been here, I’ve become intrigued by the whole African thing. Suddenly, I understand Africa. When you’re here, standing here, you think: ‘Wow. This is critical stuff.’” So, it seems, is Africa’s first World Cup.