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ZURICH (Reuters Life!) - The soccer World Cup in South Africa will break down barriers between races and bring humankind back home to its African roots, musician Vusi Mahlasela said ahead of the kickoff concert on Thursday.
Mahlasela and other African artists like Angelique Kidjo, Hugh Masekela and Tinariwen will join forces with international stars Shakira, Black Eyed Peas and Alicia Keys to play to 30,000 concert-goers packed into Soweto's Orlando stadium and millions of television viewers around the globe.
"Everybody who is coming here for the World Cup should just feel that they are back home and be on the same level with everybody else," South African folk star Mahlasela told Reuters by phone. "Here we are the same, we are family, we are one, we are home."
Mahlasela is confident Africa's first ever World Cup finals will surpass the success of the 1995 rugby tournament.
That event united South Africa's "Rainbow Nation" of peoples behind the victory of the country's erstwhile white-supported Springbok team shortly after the country's first racially democratic elections handed power to a black president, Nelson Mandela.
"I think the same sort of magic is going to come back with much more blessings," said Mahlasela.
Mandela, who proudly wore the Springbok shirt at the rugby tournament, will now be able to support South Africa's soccer team, known as "Bafana Bafana," meaning "The Boys," against Mexico in Johannesburg on Friday.
"The main player, our main man, our leader, Nelson Mandela has just confirmed that he is going to be there at the opening kickoff match and that should spark some really positive feelings for Bafana Bafana and everybody," Mahlasela said of the former president, now in his nineties.
"I'm expecting lots of black and white people and people of different races to be there and I'm sure it's going to be a positive, kind of rainbow experience," Mahlasela said.
But the choice of a soul calypso (soca) as the World Cup theme song, written and performed by Colombian pop diva Shakira, with South African group Freshly Ground playing only a supporting role in the mix, was a missed opportunity to showcase more of South Africa's abundant musical traditions, Mahlasela said.
"I don't know why they had to go and choose soca," he said, referring to the musical style more commonly associated with the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago than South Africa's townships.
"There's great music here and there's good writers and composers and quite a lot of good songs that are quite classical in highlighting the variety of the styles and traditions that we have in South Africa," he said.
A song by Durban-born afro-rocker P.J. Powers, who sang the rugby World Cup theme song "World In Union" alongside Zulu a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1995, would have been perfect, he said.
South Africa must stop tolerating the racism latent in many parts of its society, despite the progress made since 1990 after Mandela's release from 27 years in prison, Mahlasela said.
People can not afford to be complacent about the racial equality many sacrificed their lives and liberty to secure, he added.
"We as musicians have to be like watchdogs, just by seeing and speaking out, directly to the youth as well, because we need some kind of cultural revolution as well to remove ignorance," Mahlasela said, adding sportsmen also had a role to play in bringing people together.
He is optimistic South Africa can overcome its problems by following the examples of great leaders like Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as cultural icons like Miriam Makeba, the singer known as "Mama Africa" who was forced into exile and spoke against apartheid at the United Nations. She died in late 2008.
"Miriam Makeba really paved the way and managed to open a window to the world and give the full information of what was happening here in South Africa under apartheid," said Mahlasela.
He will play tribute to Makeba at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July alongside other stars she inspired like Benin's Angelique Kidjo and Senegal's Baaba Maal.
"We have to pick up where she left off," he said. "We really have to carry on because we are not yet there in terms of this democracy that we have to defend."
Editing by Steve Addison