South Africa’s first goal came when I was halfway between the Formule One motel and the town centre of Nelspruit — navigating through dusty warehouses and car parts showrooms, whole areas thrown up from prefab metal in the last decade or so.

Old Nelspruit, a small defined town sat ahead, on a slight rise. It had appeared closer. Suddenly there was a shout, vuvuzelas, whistles, rattles. Unless the place had a vibrant French quarter, Bafana Bafana had scored.

I was looking for a place to watch the game — something more exciting than the uppity seafood restaurant at the junction mini-arcade. The Lonely Planet guide had stayed at the motel.

“You’re walking into town?” it asked. “Don’t hail a taxi! Organ thieves! Couldn’t we go eco-kayaking in Kruger National Park? Plant yams for AIDS awareness?”

Mos def not. This was the locals’ last shot at getting into the 16, with a three-nil score against the Frogs. Ordinarily this would have been the longest of shots, but in the past days the French team has been rocked by chaos so quintessentially Gallic it may as well have had BO and pubic hair between its teeth.

It began last week when Nicholas Anelka was expelled from the squad after giving head coach Domenech a verbal spray in front of the rest of the team, after Les Bleus’ two-nil loss to Mexico. The players then rebelled, writing a letter of protest which they forced Domenech to read out to the media — while they sat in their bus with the windows closed.

This was yesterday. The team manager quit, and strode off, saying he was leaving football. One of the players killed one of the bisexual pair of cousines he was having an affair with — no wait, that was another thing. In any case the whole French fiasco was page one of the SA press, and the country scented the possibility not merely of victory, but of a rout.

By the time I made Nelspruit proper, the goal was 10 minutes old, but Bafana Bafana was still dominating the field. The town itself was a contrast. Neatly formed in a 16 block-or-so square beside the railway station, the place had briefly been a capital for one of the Boer republics that sprang up around the turn of the last century.

It had clearly been rebuilt in the 1950s, a small city of clean lines, and even height — even a ghost of De Stijl about its patterned bricks and parapets. The angularity was Dutch Calvanism written down in brick, a standing challenge to the curvy plateau around, the hills and paths winding away towards the sky, a challenge to Africa.

The shops once held haberdashers and stationers, according to faded lettering. But when the whites left — to suburbs north, around a mall called White River, just to make it clear — they took the money with them.

Now the business of Nelspruit sprawls inside and outside the shops, with the main street lined with orange-sellers’ tables, hair-cutting tents — a cloth strung over four poles, a mirror, chair and table — trays of old electronics, landline handsets and cassette decks, enormous women sorting potatoes onto different sheets to be bundled up, and on and on.

The game was on in every shop, and on TVs at street corners. I nipped into a milk bar — it looked like an old 70s milk bar. Four times the size, but the same loose air of things thrown together, of a unique arrangement. All the soft drink bottles in the fridge were local; there were cords of firewood next to hand-wrapped candy.

At the counters, the half-dozen shoppies — everywhere in South Africa is overstaffed — were selling creamy soda, and hand-stapled race books for the local track. The place had become an impromptu bar. The first goal had been got off a handball penalty from France. At this point, with 10 men, four of them currently sleeping with each other, the defence fell apart, and South Africa punched through a second goal.

The town erupted. The shop erupted. The shoppies poured out onto the street, dancing and ululating. Half the guys in the bar were soldiers buying sheaves of lotto tickets. “Two goals per half, that will do,” said a tubby bloke in an enormous team t-shirt.

Half-time seemed a good point to slip out, and so it proved. Even with Les Bleus in a Gallic fug, it seemed unlikely the home team would punch home the four necessary to make it through, though it seemed possible they would hold the French off. Alas it did not prove to be. Once Thierry Henry came on, the team fell into a rhythm of sorts, and Franck Ribery eventually made goal.

France’s comeback put South Africa’s elevation out of reach, and I was glad I’d come back. Actually it was because it was getting dark. The crimson sun — is it crimson? A sort of whitish red, indefinable — was setting fast behind the nearby peaks, pretty as an STA brochure.

It did actually occur to me I only had the vaguest idea where the Formule One was, and that being lost on the outskirts of Nelspruit at night was probably pushing it. And in that moment, a shadow came across the sun, and you’re in that zone again. Not knowing whether you’re being prudent or panicked, taking account of your surroundings, or playing into the obsessive outsider’s image of the country.

Back at the ranch, before the Argentina-Greece game (2-0, though Greece held them off for 77 minutes), and Nigeria-South Korea (2-2, after an atrocious Nigerian perfomance) Channel Three had a tribute to Busi Mhlongo, the recently-deceased 60-something music icon, who (apparently) fused traditional maskandi music, jazz, funk, rap, and which generally sounds like nothing else on earth (though The Cat Empire, but not with Preshil kids, might approximate).

In a sort of punk cut-up of traditional robes, a shaman’s stick, she was somewhere between Grace Jones and Louise Bourgeois, paganistic, incantatory, relentless. Here she was on the national broadcaster, everything old Nelspruit, prim and tight, had been built against. Four days here, and you feel on the edge of an enormous plateau indeed.

Peter Fray

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