Will World Cup bring South Africans closer?

Beyond the angst about whether South Africa will pull off a successful World Cup next year is a more profound question - can the competition bring the races closer 15 years after the end of apartheid? Organisers of the competition, Africa's biggest sports event, are hoping for a moment akin to the legendary appearance of Nelson Mandela in a Springbok shirt when South Africa won the 1995 rugby World Cup in Johannesburg.

That gesture forged an iconic symbol of national unity from a sport passionately loved by whites and had a lasting impact in calming their raw fears a year after majority rule began.

The nation has come a long way since then, but distrust and tensions persist between the races and, in a sports-mad nation, successful staging of the most-watched competition on earth could mark a new watershed.

"The 1995 rugby World Cup helped establish South Africa as the 'Rainbow Nation'. The 2010 FIFA World Cup will see that nation come of age," organising committee chief executive Danny Jordaan told Reuters.

He said the current Confederations Cup tournament, seen as a dress rehearsal for next year's extravaganza and watched by multiracial crowds, had already shown "the capability that soccer has in bridging the divide between different races... "It is my belief that the FIFA World Cup will have an even greater effect."

Jordaan is not alone in trusting in the potential of the tournament to have a major impact at home, weakening divisions and misunderstanding and also drawing more whites into football - traditionally a black South Africans' game.

"You can be a fairly right-wing white Afrikaner and still feel an immense sense of pride when you see your nation is hosting what is the biggest show on earth, even if you are a die-hard rugby fan," said Richard Maguire, editor of South Africa's football magazine Kick-Off.

"I think definitely the World Cup will have an impact in bringing people together and developing a sense of unity and national pride," he told Reuters.


But while there is widespread optimism and excitement is building, analysts warn the impact should not be over-estimated. The only real way to bring South Africans closer is to end the stark wealth disparities that are among the reasons for one of the world's worst rates of violent crime.

"You can feel good about all this stuff in a stadium but on a Monday morning, when it is raining on your little tin shack held together with pieces of plastic , you may not be feeling so good about South Africa," Maguire said.

"There are those harsh realities underneath that no World Cup is going to take away."

Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst with the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, said the 1995 rugby final occurred in the unique context of the recent end of apartheid and Mandela's enormous personal charisma.

But much of the effect was transitory as those factors waned and Mandela retired from active politics. The World Cup could have some unifying impact, "but the caveat is that it may be far too emphemeral, as it has been in the past," Fakir said.

"It will go some way in addressing some of the symbolic social relations questions but it won't go the whole way. That requires both an attitudinal shift as well as a material shift in the distribution of wealth."

The World Cup has significantly boosted economic activity. The construction sector associated with road, rail and stadium building is a rare bright light in the first recession for nearly two decades in Africa's biggest economy.

Flourishing tourism is expected to receive a fillip from the competition with nearly half a million fans expected, drawn by comparatively low prices and the lure of combining football with a safari or beach break.

But Fakir warned that many of the benefits in job and wealth creation to iron out economic inequality could be short-lived. "Addressing structural inequality is a different question. I don't think it will do that," he said.

And while the Springboks won in 1995, South Africa's football team, nicknamed Bafana Bafana (the boys), are likely to struggle to do really well in 2010, reducing local appeal. "The tournament will lose something if Bafana are underperforming and it will gain a whole lot more if they perform well," Maguire said. "But I don't think it will make or break the tournament."

Even if more whites become football fans, including young Afrikaans-speakers whipped up by World Cup fever, it might be difficult to sustain their enthusiasm for long because of the mediocre quality of local club matches. Already whites prefer televised international games to local leagues.

And despite the surprised enthusiasm of some white fans at the Confederations Cup, where they have revelled in the atmosphere and classy football, others remain cynical about 2010.

"I am not sure the World Cup will bring all strands of society together in one rainbow mix ... Black people will watch the World Cup in their bars, white people will watch it at home in their lounges," said Felicity Davis, a financial analyst.

"If we win the World Cup, I'll say 'yeah well done', but I won't be riding around tooting my car horn all night. I'll leave that to the Lebanese," retired carpenter and Springbok rugby fan Michael Du Plessis, 62, said in a Bloemfontein bar.