July 2, 2010 / 2:34 PM / 7 years ago

Witness: World Cup success left me spellbound

Gugulakhe Lourie is a Reuters correspondent based in Johannesburg who covers equities in southern Africa, specialising in telecommunications and construction.

<p>Fans hold up a South African flag before the 2010 World Cup opening match between South Africa and Mexico at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg June 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon</p>

Aged 34, he grew up in the small town of Bethal in the northeastern province of Mpumalanga. Before coming to Reuters in 2008, he worked at Finweek and Business Report newspapers.

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Just a few months ago, many critics said South Africa could never organize the first World Cup on African soil, and when it happened nobody here could quite believe it.

They thought they were dreaming.

South Africa has stunned the world and itself by delivering the globe’s most-watched sporting spectacle with none of the chaos and disasters the pessimists, both local and international, had predicted.

There was huge, heart-stopping elation as tens of thousands of gold, green and red-clad fans settled in for the opening match of Africa’s first World Cup at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg on June 11.

The mood was euphoric, and we are still on an adrenaline high despite the elimination of our own team, Bafana Bafana, in the first round.

I watched, spellbound, as the country showcased its beauty to hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors, themselves stunned by how wrong some of the advance reporting had been.

I spent the first night wandering through the township of Soweto, heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, relishing the moment and taking pictures. South Africans were having a great time, blowing their plastic vuvuzela trumpets. It was like the explosion of joy when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990.

From that moment I knew the money spent on staging this World Cup, despite all our problems, would contribute in no small measure to changing the persistent negativity of the past toward this country and the continent.

The impact of the World Cup has been immense. Besides stunning new stadiums gracing our skylines, the World Cup has given Africa its first high-speed urban train -- the Gautrain -- around Johannesburg, and a whole new network of roads.

I am proud of this groundbreaking infrastructure. It will certainly add value to our lives.

The World Cup has changed the face of our country after the government invested more than 40 billion rand ($5.17 billion) on infrastructure.

Upgraded airports and train stations and public transport networks have been built, including a bus rapid transit system that for the first time ends the apartheid-era isolation of the townships from proper public links.

MUCH MORE TO DO

Of course everything is not rosy.

As a young South African, I knew from the day FIFA awarded us the right to stage the 2010 World Cup, that it would not be a panacea to all our problems, far from it.

I was not surprised when a little of the magic wore off immediately, as stadium security guards went on wildcat strikes, forcing police to take over their roles.

Sixteen years after apartheid ended, poverty is still a major feature of South African life and presents a growing political challenge for the government that will have to be faced when all the fans have gone home, probably with a new sense of urgency and public impatience.

Mind you, many poor South Africans were unable to afford a ticket to this spectacular tournament yet they have been behind it all the way.

Like me, they have hope.

So, more than anything else, it is vitally important that this World Cup leaves a lasting legacy, that the lessons we learned and the unity we forged is not forgotten in a few months.

I believe the impact on South Africans and Africans in general is to instill an unprecedented sense of self-confidence, of knowing that we can overcome our challenges of poverty, wars and the curse of possessing abundant natural resources that in more cases than not seem to create conflict instead of happiness.

I have a conviction that every time we think about the 2010 World Cup, long after it is over and the golden trophy is handed to the winner, we will remember that we have the capacity to sort out our own problems without foreign interference and handouts.

Let’s keep faith with that crucial message and deliver good health services, living standards and education to the people of this continent.

I believe that the successful staging of this World Cup has created in all South Africans the belief that we have the capacity to overcome huge problems, reduce the army of poor and unemployed and remove some of the world’s greatest wealth disparities, which themselves lead to our terrible rates of violent crime.

In retrospect, it is not hard to trace what forces drove FIFA to award the World Cup to South Africa.

This country has managed to stage other big events without problem. But the World Cup has been much bigger than anything previously and has become a great get-together for people of all races, creeds and beliefs -- you name it.

Hopefully it will ensure that the “lord of chaos” is finally destroyed.

As I dwell on my memories of this wonderful time, I am reminded of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words:

“It’s like I‘m dreaming man -- wake me up! Thank you for helping this ugly worm, which we were, to become a beautiful, beautiful butterfly.”

Editing by Barry Moody

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