It was about a third of the way into the New Zealand versus Italy match when I began to understand the point of the vuvuzela.

In the Mbombela Stadium outside of the northern city of Nelspruit, the Kiwis were putting up a surprisingly strong fight against the reigning champion — although most of that involved a hectic crowding back into the goalmouth every 19 seconds or so.

The southern light was fading, and the NZ fans were doing their best to mozz the preening opponents every time they took a corner or one of their mamma’s-boy stage dives: “Why are eyeties/always liars,” I think one went. The first wave of Mexican waves had come and gone.

And then the continuous low hum, that keening single note, began to join together. From somewhere a rhythm started, blowing off the beat, and the everyone began to take it up. There were no fixed fan areas, just pockets of New Zealanders all in white, and locals, and Italians dressed like jars of pasta sauce, and it came from all points.

As Vincenzo Iaquinta sent the equalising penalty past a hapless Mark Paston, the whole stadium echoed and twanged with it, filling the sound out to a giant swell. As the goal went home it broke into cheers, the concrete shell echoing with the last harmonies of it.

Harmonies, yes.

Ten minutes after arriving in South Africa, my liberal nightmare began. At the gleaming O.R. Tambo International Airport, I rushed for the bogs as soon as I cleared Customs. But just before I dragged my bags into the stall, the attendant nipped in ahead of me.

“Oh, a moment sir, please allow me,” he said, brandishing a sponge and a fancy water spritzer.

Was he going to … Oh surely not. God yes, he was. He was wiping the seat, ahead of me. I probably don’t need to add that he wasn’t of the complexion of Matt Damon.

Really? It was beginning already? My head was spinning. Was this done for everyone? Just tourists? Just people, you know the complexion of Matt Damon? Should I tip? I should tip. Except I hadn’t changed any money yet. Oh God.

As I slunk out, rose-scented ablutions concluded, I tried to avoid eye contact. There was a fold-out sign saying “cleaning in progress” near the door, but no real clue as to whether this had been part of the routine.

Three days later, and I still haven’t found out whether this is standard practice, and I’m not quite sure how to introduce it into the conversation.

South Africa, fifty million strong, sub-Saharan Africa’s powerhouse, has become a vast field of dreams for the World Cup, every bar turned over to it, TV sets on milk crates in vacant lots showing it, whole cities re-organised for the games, from public transport, down to the very architecture and layout.

Even the gleaming immaculateness of Tambo, the game has taken over, the foyer filled with souvenir sellers, all the way down to the firearms check-in counter, and the horns echoing through the place irritating when there’s less than, ohhhh, a thousand of them in one place. Occasionally someone lets off an air horn. Anywhere else, in a place this sepulchral, the cops would have called a lock down hours earlier.

The first continues all the way out of the airport and to the Gauteng train, the line built to go all the way from Tambo right into the heart of the city. Or it will do in 2011. For now, it’s only been built as far as Sandton, the northern sub-city of Johannesburg that has effectively become the new business and commercial hub.

Sandton gleams and towers above the ranch-house suburbs around, full of chain-store hotels. The tourists are white, the people shopping in the luxury stores around them are white and black, and all the guys in the street wearing “Sandton City safety marshal” vests are black. They stand near overpasses and side streets among the towers, gently directing gormless tourists back towards the safer, public areas.

It’s Saturday, and outside the hotels, coaches are filling with Aussies on their way north to Rustenburg for the game against Ghana. This is the way most of the foreign audience is taking the World Cup in, rolling from chain hotel to coach to game to chain hotel and on and on.

The Socceroos fans — do we still use that dumb name? — are looking a bit subdued, not merely because Germany made us the then laughing stock of the tournament with a 4-0 drubbing, but also because Bafana Bafana (the South African team) also wears green and gold as colours, and it’s home-team dibs.

“So you’re going to Rustenburg?”

“Yeah, mate, it’s a beautiful country, everyone’s that happy.”

Oh please don’t say that.

“Right up to Sun City.”

“Nah … Rust-en-burg.”

They don’t know Sun City, which is interesting. For the main thing about South Africa is that it just feels weird to be here. For anyone of conventional inner-city leftie views actually, for anyone decent, it was just a no-go zone in the ’70s and ’80s. And right up to the moment when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, it looked like it might stay that way for some time.

Sun City was the resort the apartheid regime set up in one of the bantustans that were nominally self-governing (thus depriving blacks of SA citizenship), an atrocity not least for spawning the pro-boycott Steve Van Zandt song Sun City.

It would occur to me later that by whole weekend would have been simpler if I had simply jumped their coach, which was not full. But not I, f-ck no. I was going to languorously drift into central Jo’burg and take the train or bus out.

That idea got its first ely* half an hour later when the minibus taxi I had jumped into was marooned in the traffic in the inner north. A quick search for public transport had found that there was practically no transport between Sandton and Jo’burg proper only ad hoc private minibuses. As the bus pulled away through Sandton towards the city one could see why — and that maybe the lack of a connecting train for the Cup period was no accident.

Sandton was the new South Africa, or one expression of it, hotels, towers and malls done in the vaguely global vernacular of concrete with a few ornaments. The towers have their frou frous and curlicues, the malls connect to each other Sandton City mall, Michelangelo mall, and, yes, Nelson Mandela square mall so that no one need use the street.

It was an island of itself, a world away from the old Afrikaner city that played host to it. That, with its old art deco and modern apartments was now unquestionably an African city indeed a lot of it now Little Kinshasa or Little Yaounde, centres for the growing number of undocumented immigrants, a lot of it squatted. Posters for “Prophet Mo Ngwaye” (“curer of all evils”) and “safe same day abortion” in the old Boer heart.

The upshot, of course, was that I missed the train despite a matronly looking woman looking me and up down as we all piled out at the teeming central minibus depot and saying simply “come I will walk you to the station”. Politeness to a tourist? Or was she convinced that if I tried alone through a rough and ready area, I would arrive without my pants? In my pocket the Jo’burg section of the Lonely Planet guide was shrieking like a mental case: “don’t get out at the taxi depot! Jesus, don’t walk to the station! Oh f-ck, no … I can’t look.”

So in the end I watched the Socceroos take on my team Ghana (always support the third world against OECD teams) from the hotel bar. It was a sort of bucket o’ cocktails sort of joint, with nachos and thatch umbrellas inside, all very fake-veldt.

It occurred to me, as a couple of rough looking bush blokes came in, that they were the first whites I had seen for about half an hour. Oh, who am I kidding? It had been occurring to me every 10 seconds since I got off the bus.

“Yeah, not so cool now are you slick — maybe an eco-tour is more your style,” said the LP guide.

“Shut up,” I said.

When Kewell got sent off and cost a goal in the first half, the bloke next to me at the bar turned and said, “Hmmmmmm that’s bad for you.”

“Not really,” I said.

“I’m uh …”

What? Barracking for Ghana? More liberal head debate. Funny joke? Deeply patronising? Which of dese?

“Don’t say that,” the guide pleaded. “Why not go on a bicycling tour of Soweto instead?”

“I’m uh English,” I replied.

“Then  it’s always bad for you.”

Later, as the Ghanaian team tried, for reasons best known to themselves to make getting a goal more interesting by shooting from the centre line, or close to, I listened to the vuvuzela sound, and wondered what it would be like in the real.

Nothing like it appears, as it turns out.

Wednesday, Australia meets Serbia for the most important game in our World Cup history to date (even I can’t support Serbia). Our deathful Kontiki fanbase is already rolling into town. Anything is possible even a match report.

*ely, from The Deeper Meaning of Liff, the first intimation that something somewhere has gone horribly wrong.

Peter Fray

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