Given the empathy-laden lens through which South African author Ivan Vladislavic presents his home city to us in the walking tour that is Portrait With Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked (see my City Paper review here) , he seemed a perfect fit to help widen the perspective on the 2010 World Cup.
While the juxtaposition of majestic stadiums with decrepit shanty towns and deeply troubling statistics — 25 percent national unemployment rate; 45-50 murders a day in Johannesburg — definitely speak of a harsh South African reality, one cannot help but find ready parallels with Philadelphia, or any troubled city, where racial division, economic disparity, and a poor educational system is the rule of day.
Keeping these things in mind, we looked to focus, just as Vladislavic does in his book, on the potential for hope, for the many positives that could benefit a soccer mad and highly jubilant nation.
PSP: There are a myriad of issues at hand here of importance, with many having ready interplay with your book, where you provide an intimate, unflinching look at a suffering city where the past is still very much alive with apartheid heavily looming.
There’s the issue of cheap tourism and whether anyone who made the trip was able to see more than just the soccer, and if any of that filtered through the television around the world. And of course, while looking at these issues, I think the other major parallel is that one needs to be inspired rather than drowned by affliction.
PSP: Speaking of the disparity between the black township and the white city in Portrait With Keys, it shows that you have a keen eye for the way that architecture shapes and reflects the life of a city, Johannesburg particularly. How important is it then that perhaps the greatest symbol of this World Cup, Soccer City Stadium with its multi-million dollar renovations, has become a house infused with African culture with it’s shell made to resemble the African calabash?
Ivan Vladislavic: One of the things to be said about the Soccer City stadium is that it serves Soweto and is the home of soccer for many black supporters. It’s significant I think that this particular stadium has been upgraded and is being used for both the opening ceremony and the final game. The stadium in my area, Ellis Park, is traditionally a rugby stadium, although it has been home to one of the local soccer teams for the last few years.
By contrast, the Green Point stadium in Cape Town always felt like an unnecessary expense to me. Cape Town didn’t need a new stadium, certainly not in that part of the city, in my view. The money would have been better spent upgrading an existing stadium and building some sports facilities in areas more accessible to the poor, to the city’s black population.
PSP: With what you’re speaking about — the use of Ellis Park as a former rugby stadium — we have the history of the white sport versus the black sport, soccer. Could you speak to how that has changed with the rise of soccer’s popularity, while commenting on the possibility of the World Cup as the culmination of that process as Johannesburg, as South Africa continues to try to come out of the shadow of apartheid?
Ivan Vladislavic: Like most aspects of social life, soccer was racially divided under apartheid. As a kid, I was a soccer supporter, my father and I both followed the local team. This was in Pretoria, where I grew up, and the team was called Berea Park. We went to all the games. Of course, in those years soccer was segregated, and the team was totally white.
When the sport and the crowds became integrated– and this has a complicated and interesting history– soccer became perceived as a black sport and most white South Africans stopped going to the games, which is a pity. One of the positive outcomes of the World Cup may be that it draws a diverse range of spectators back to local soccer. We’ll have to see what happens once the international fans have gone home.
PSP: You mention how Green Point stadium was seen as unnecessary and how it could have been built elsewhere. Could you speak more to your comment about how it could have been placed in a better area for poor black South Africans?
Ivan Vladislavic: Green Point is on the seaboard, close to the center of Cape Town, whereas most of the black population is out on the Cape Flats or on the outskirts of the city. I believe this money could have been spent upgrading sports facilities in the poorer areas. It’s also difficult for black supporters to get to the Green Point stadium.
“A sporting event like this draws an unusual kind of tourist…What’s interesting about sport tourism is that it draws people into parts of the city they would not normally visit, and this might well change their perceptions of the place.”
PSP: And that speaks to the point that it being so ingrained in the black culture, the World Cup, the game itself could provide a rallying point for the whole populace, but especially for the black population, especially if you allocate the funds to the right area. You do so and you get much more of a boost so to say.
Ivan Vladislavic: If you don’t want the stadiums to be white elephants after the event, they need to be accessible to local people, which I don’t think will be the case with Green Point. The money could have been better spent on providing top class facilities for local kids in their own areas, for local teams and local spectators. A stadium on the Flats would draw crowds into the area, it would bring in money and create jobs for people where they live.
PSP: Your book applies a human lens to the many socio-economic and cultural issues relevant to everyone in the world. And with the point you just spoke on, I can’t help but think of the new stadium we have for our nascent MLS team, the Philadelphia Union. Initially they were going to build it just outside the city or within city limits and then they decided to build it a half an hour to the south in this vastly economically depressed area known as Chester. It’s basically people going over a bridge, leaving, and this is some of the worst crime per capita we have in the country.
I guess one of the things overall that I want to talk about is that we could essentially see the same thing happening in this World Cup. Instead of a bridge, everyone is getting on a flight and going back home. Even though they obviously aren’t residents, there should be an impetus — and your book would certainly say so — to have an awareness, to take note, to respond. What can you say in this regard?
Ivan Vladislavic: I think this ties up with what you were saying at the beginning about tourism. A sporting event like this draws an unusual kind of tourist. It’s clear that at least some of these passionate soccer fans are following a different sort of itinerary to what the average visitor to South Africa follows.
The stereotypical tourist arrives in Johannesburg and goes straight to Sandton, in the wealthy north of the city. They might go out of the city briefly to visit a game reserve, and then they move on to the prettier parts of the country like Cape Town or the Garden Route. But people don’t generally stay in Johannesburg and go around it and see the city from the ground.
What’s interesting about sport tourism is that it draws people into parts of the city they would not normally visit, and this might well change their perceptions of the place. We don’t usually have too many tourists in my part of town, but because of the proximity of Ellis Park stadium, I’ve seen hundreds of people going around my neighborhood who are clearly soccer fans. It’s a very unusual thing. In fact on the day of the very first game, my wife and I were woken up by a commotion in the street outside. We went onto the stoep, and there was a crowd of crazy Brazil supporters going by in full regalia, blowing vuvuzelas. It was wonderful: a blaring announcement that the World Cup had started.
PSP: I guess, on a quick lighter note, I’ve come actually — I can’t believe it — to love the vuvuzelas.
Ivan Vladislavic: [Laughs]
PSP: Yeah, it’s unbelievable I’m saying this because during the Confederations Cup last year I hated them. It seemed like there were giant CGI bees just out of sight ready to descend on everyone in the stadium. I guess, speaking to the cultural impact that South Africa brings, along with say, well, everyone sees the stadium, the people watching around the world get a sense of how important is it then that there are such distinct cultural impressions even though they could be perceived as a bit superficial at first, but it just kind of bleeds through the television and through the speakers.
“…when the soccer is over, we’ll still be sitting with the social problems we had before the event. But I hope some of the positive energy will be carried over into the future.”
Ivan Vladislavic: I guess it gives people a sense they’re dealing with a culture that has its own way of doing things. There are two World Cups. There’s the one you experience if you’re at the event, or if like us you’re lucky enough to be in the country, and there’s the World Cup on TV, which is how most people experience it. If you just saw the TV images of these magnificent stadiums, you could be almost anywhere in the world. This has a positive side to it: the perception that African cities have facilities that are as good as anywhere else. On the other hand, the vuvuzelas, and the way the fans dress, the helmets and big sunglasses, that sort of thing, give it a local flavor. An African signature, if you like.
PSP: So going beyond what we only see on the television, what is the general mood? Sure, there had to be a drop after South Africa’s exit in the first round, but one of the things that strikes me concerning South Africa, once you get to the actual numbers, is the economic depression, the jobless rate of 25%.
Sure you see scores of people, the stadiums full with black South Africans draped in their nations colors, and as you mentioned the vuvuzelas, the glasses, the jubilation, but you know there are millions of black South Africans who can’t even afford to have a drink during a game. Could you speak to the overall mood and what it’s doing for the country despite these obviously tough obstacles?
Ivan Vladislavic: Well, this is a complex thing. One doesn’t want to lose sight of the fact that South Africa has massive social problems. At the same time, I’ve found some of the commentary on this issue a little bit patronizing. It’s not as if we were expecting the World Cup to solve all our problems. I’ve read some pieces in the English press that took this line. I think very few South Africans are so naïve as to think that one sporting event that lasts for a month is going to fix everything.
So, while one doesn’t want to lose sight of reality, South Africans need reasons to celebrate from time to time, especially because we are such a divided society and live in a fragile democracy. Events that draw people together are important. They don’t solve the social issues, but they have an important symbolic value. People want to feel that they belong, they need reasons to feel part of something larger than themselves, some positive reason to get together. South Africans have a tendency to turn away from one another, and I think something that makes people turn towards one another is a very good thing.
It’s clear that when the soccer is over, we’ll still be sitting with the social problems we had before the event. But I hope some of the positive energy will be carried over into the future. I hope the idea that when we South Africans apply ourselves we can make things happen carries over into how we approach things like the delivery of social services.
PSP: Certainly the pessimistic statements you speak of are too simplistic and they ignore the fact that people living in difficult times need something like this that can supply a tremendous amount of hope. I guess that would be a good jumping off point for one of the salient points I see at this World Cup, which is not only the celebratory aspect that would come about regardless, but how it is informed by the renovation and building of stadiums by black South Africans, and the symbolism inherent in their involvement. How important do you think that is and how much do you think that effects the ability to lift up black South Africans, especially since there is hope that, as you said, that more public work programs will come about and possibly, that will be the rallying point from the standpoint of both the populace and the government?
Ivan Vladislavic: All the construction projects over the last few years have given many people a steady job and allowed them to acquire skills. Our economy was also buffered against the recession to some extent by all this infrastructure development. Employment is down, but no doubt it would have been worse if not for the building boom.
There’s been a focus on rebuilding and expanding transport infrastructure especially, with a huge amount of money spent on upgrading airports, highways, stations, and so on. There are new bus systems coming into operation in several cities. These things were at least spurred on by the World Cup. It would be nice if such developments happened independently, but from my point of view they will be one of the most important, concrete legacies of the event. The transport infrastructure will serve the country well over the next decade or more.
PSP: Speaking a little bit more on the role of black construction workers, the impact of that on so many levels, it really further reinforces and draws immediate parallels with the essay you read from [in 2008 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art] relating to South African artist William Kentridge’s tapestries for which he employed black South African weavers in making these beautiful pieces that had images of blacks against bygone historical maps of South Africa, hence saying how interwoven their history is with the country. So, with this hopefully being a watershed moment, could you speak to that parallel?
“South Africans have lived in divided spaces for a long time…we have been trying to develop a new sense of public life, of sharing space…the World Cup has taken people back into public spaces.”
Ivan Vladislavic: Johannesburg’s wealth is founded on gold mining and therefore on black labour. This city, built by a black workforce, is the economic powerhouse of the country and the region. If a large project like Soccer City draws attention to the contribution of black workers, it is simply making visible a fact about the whole South African economy.
PSP: To speak to the situation I mentioned earlier, it’s kind of hard, especially with what you just said, not to think of the stadium here [in the Philadelphia region] in relation to the issues which make your book so universally applicable, especially when you’re talking about troubled cities where they have such a high degree of social economic disparity, such as in Philly where there is a clear racial divide and crime reportage is elevated when it creeps into sheltered areas.
One of the controversies surrounding the stadium built in neighboring Chester is that there were numerous promises made by the developers and ownership to help spur economic development in Chester, though they’ve hardly shown any interest in doing so. As I mentioned earlier, there is that call to a sensitive awareness that permeates your book. You talk about “your ear being pressed to the shell of the city.” How easily then can a city fall into peril if one’s citizens, regardless of their backgrounds, do not have that awareness? How important is that?
Ivan Vladislavic: South Africans have lived in divided spaces for a long time. In recent years, we have been trying to develop a new sense of public life, of sharing space with other people and breaking down the divisions, but much of our social life is somewhat introverted, one could even say privatized. The World Cup has taken people back into public spaces. This is something I’ve noticed in a small way in my area.
My wife and I went down to watch the Brazil/Chile match earlier this week at the Troyeville Hotel, a great pub not far from Ellis Park where the game was being played. It was great to be able to walk through parts of the city that are normally deserted at night, to go down and find the streets full of soccer fans on the way to the stadium. The presence of people on city streets always makes them safe. One of the ironies of a city like this is that people avoid the streets because they think they’re unsafe and that’s precisely what makes them [laughing] dangerous. Because they’re empty. If you get enough people out on the streets they’re safer. It’s been wonderful to walk around in places I would not usually venture into, because there are a lot of people around.
PSP: It sounds like an anomalous snowstorm. It’s exactly what Johannesburg needs, this sudden flurry of community.
Ivan Vladislavic: Yes, it needs what is simply normal life, normal street life in many cities. Cities where people feel safe. This is what it could be like if we had more people out and about. Hopefully the citizens of Johannesburg will get a taste for it.
PSP: To wrap up, there are several instances from your book that come to mind. There is the interaction with a beggar where he asks you, after you do not give him money, “What must I do crime?” It catches you off guard, it’s so surprising, but then again, in the context of the book, you present it as making perfect sense. If joblessness continues as it is, and if there’s not a needed up-tick in a sense of community, there’s much room for worry. What sense of optimism does this event provide? I guess it’s hard to say now, but what would be your initial projections given what you’re seeing?
In that regard, another quote that stands out, that inadvertently seems to speak to this, is when you run into your old friend Eddy, who is representative of the many [white] people who have fled the city. It’s a very quick line that sums up years of emotions; “they talk for twenty minutes about work, and soccer, and politics, and then it’s time to go back into the past, where their old selves are waiting.” I guess that’s the major fear so many people have.
Ivan Vladislavic: There’s bound to be some kind of an anti-climax after the event. There was certainly a different mood after South Africa’s exit in the first round. Now many people have switched allegiances, hoping one of the African teams would go through. As you know, Ghana is in with a shot — playing Uruguay I believe — and it’s kept the African interest alive. I get the sense that interest is picking up as we head into the final stages, but there will inevitably be a bit of a slump afterward. We’ve all had something to focus on instead of the serious politics that usually preoccupy us. It’s a little bit of a distraction from the harsh realities. I’m hoping that at least some of the spirit of optimism will survive.
PSP: As I mentioned earlier, there’s fear of a backlash or strikes– just as you have at the end of your book– from people who feel their wages are not liveable. There’s always that possibility, but hopefully with this huge wave of optimism coupled with a burgeoning sense of community, there’s at least a spark that can carry over.
Ivan Vladislavic: It is interesting that the event itself has revealed some of the disparities. You may know that workers at Eskom (the national electricity supplier) are threatening to strike at the moment, which would have serious implications for the whole event. One of the grievances raised by the union is the amount of money management spent on tickets for the World Cup, at a time when the company is supposedly strapped for cash.
PSP: One of the major points I’ve come across as far as the economic disparity is that if there are segments of the black population being helped it is management, while the poorest levels, the most unskilled are not receiving the necessary aid, they’re not being made more employable, and education resources are not being granted them.
Ivan Vladislavic: We do have a growing black middle class, and there have been enormous shifts economically at certain levels of our society. But the large mass of really poor people, who are nearly all black, have been left out. That’s the issue that has to be addressed when we get back to real life in a couple of weeks time.
PSP: I’ve heard that tickets have been made available at a much more reasonable rate for South Africans, yet at the same time I have a friend who went down there and he purchased a ticket from a local for face value $80. Now, I can’t see the poor being able to come anywhere close to that.
Ivan Vladislavic: Yes, absolutely.
PSP: Can you speak then to the black demographic going to the games? What’s the reality there?
Ivan Vladislavic: I imagine you would need quite a bit of disposable income to go to most of the games. Then again, I know that some companies have been buying tickets for their employees. And of course people have been watching the games in the fan parks and other cheaper venues. My wife and I watched the opening ceremony and first game in Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown, close to the city center. That is an open-air fan park with free access. There were something like 30,000 people there. The atmosphere was extraordinary– actually, I’ve never experienced anything like it.
PSP: There is definitely that great sense of community. I’ve been to some outdoor screenings of matches here. Could you speak more to the atmosphere at the fan parks? Is there a huge racial mix? Is this Johannesburg, is this South Africa coming together?
“…the 1995 Rugby World Cup has come up so often…I personally thought it would be rather different, because the country’s circumstances have changed so much. But there has been a certain similarity, with the whole country getting behind the soccer team.”
Ivan Vladislavic: The fan park on Mary Fitzgerald Square was mainly black I would say, with quite a lot of people from the inner city. I imagine the mix has been whiter and wealthier in the fan parks in the north. The viewing screens in township areas obviously draw black people mainly. I suppose it depends where you are in the city. If you go into the average pub in Joburg you’ll find a mixed crowd of people watching a game, which is nice.
PSP: One of the things I found amazing about your book is the simple itemization of everyday details, whether they are architectural nuances or a rote listing of personal items you come across while on your walking tour of the city. I assume what you’re trying to relate is the sheer effect of memory, the weight of the past that everyone carries around, especially the weight of apartheid in South Africa. One would hope that this event could hope to shed some of that weight.
Ivan Vladislavic: Yes, I think it might do that. Sport is very important to South Africans. The example of the 1995 Rugby World Cup has come up so often over the last few years as we’ve headed toward this event, with people wondering whether it would be the same. I personally thought it would be rather different, because the country’s circumstances have changed so much. But there has been a certain similarity, with the whole country getting behind the soccer team.
One has to keep these symbolic moments in perspective, as we’ve already said, because one goes back to real life afterward. Nevertheless, the symbolism is particularly resonant here, as sport is a hugely important aspect of South African life. The least we can say is that we had a good time [laughs]. Good news is sometimes in short supply and the World Cup has made people happy. Let’s get together to watch a game. That has to be a positive thing.