The World Cup is finally coming to Africa, to be hosted by a nation that had been banned from international soccer up until just 15 years ago.
We read "Cry, the Beloved Country" in high school but it wasn't until college, in the early 1980s, that I gave much thought to South Africa and apartheid. A friend of mine slept in the university library for two months in a protest demanding the university divest funds it had in South Africa.
My efforts were substantially less ambitious. I bought the "Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid" album - the fundraising effort led by Bruce Springsteen guitarist Little Steven long before he became Silvio Dante of "The Sopranos."
Protests on my campus led to the University of California's withdrawal of $3 billion worth of investments from the apartheid state. Nelson Mandela later said that the massive divestment played a significant role in ending his nation's tyrannical white-minority rule.
So when I toured Mandela's old home last November in Soweto on Vilakazi Street, it hit me that it wasn't that long ago.
Not that long ago that South Africa, which will host the 2010 World Cup, was a dramatically different nation.
Not that long ago, that the talented player Lucas Radebe was growing up in the Diepkloof section of Soweto unsure if he might ever have a national team.
"I imagined that it might happen," said Radebe. "That we would have a national team and I would play for my country. But it was when Mandela got out of prison that I expected it to happen."
Radebe was 21 years old when Mandela was released from Robben Island prison in February 1990 after 27 years of incarceration for leading the fight against the white-minority rule over a nation of 43 million whose population was nearly 80 percent black.
Upon Mandela's release began the dismantling of apartheid, and blacks were granted the basic human rights and civil liberties that had been denied them by law since 1948. In 1992, FIFA, which had banned the South African national team because of racial segregation, welcomed it back. On July 7 of that year, Radebe lined up against Cameroon in South Africa's first official international game in 37 years.
"Soccer is such a popular sport here and we wanted to compete for our country," Radebe said. "Our first game was against Cameroon, Africa's top team after its performance at the 1990 World Cup with Roger Milla. We won, 1-0."
The game took place in Durban, the city on the Indian Ocean. And it was in Durban in November 2007, on the eve of the 2010 World Cup Preliminary Draw, where Radebe talked about growing up in the apartheid state before playing in two World Cups and captaining Leeds United.
And then Jomo Sono stopped to speak with the visiting reporters. Apartheid ended too late for Sono to have a national team career, but he coached the 2002 World Cup team that Radebe captained. Sono played six seasons in the NASL (1977-82), including a year with the New York Cosmos alongside Pele.
"The United States presented a magnificent opportunity for me," Sono said. "I was a man in two worlds. In my own country, I was not considered a citizen, but in America I was accepted and respected as a black man."
When Sono returned to South Africa, he founded the Jomo Cosmos. Kaizer Motaung, who played for the NASL's Atlanta Chiefs, founded the Kaizer Chiefs. Along with Radebe, they took the stage during the draw, at which FIFA president Sepp Blatter declared, "Now there's no doubt that the 2010 World Cup will be a big success."
COMING-OUT PARTY. In South Africa, hosting the World Cup has been described as the nation's coming-out party following its 1994 baptism as a democracy.
In April 1994, two months before the United States hosted the World Cup, South Africa held its first multi-racial election. Mandela, as leader of the African National Congress (ANC) party, which the government banned from 1960 to 1990, became South Africa's president.
Opening the draw ceremonies was South Africa President Thabo Mbeki, an ANC leader who had lived 28 years in exile. He succeeded Mandela as president in 1999.
"Africa is ready, Africa's time has come," said Mbeki. "Africa is calling, come to Africa in 2010.
"The World Cup will be a significant catalyst which will assist our efforts as a country and continent."
The images presented at the draw celebrated what Mandela, who turned 89 last July and has retired from public life, dubbed the "Rainbow Nation."
For South Africans, the draw marked the end of their worries about the rumors that the FIFA would pull the World Cup for fears that South Africa would be unable to prepare stadiums in time or that its infrastructure wouldn't be able to support the 64-game tournament.
Danny Jordaan, the CEO of 2010 World Cup Organizing Committee, has repeatedly pointed out that South Africa has successfully hosted numerous major events, albeit not as ambitious as the soccer World Cup, including the 1995 Rugby World Cup, soccer's 1996 African Cup of Nations, the 1998 track & field world championships, the 1999 All-African Games and the 2003 Cricket World Cup.
"After Nelson Mandela's release in 1990, we had to attract major events," Jordaan said. "We wanted South Africa to remain a discussion point because we wanted to see foreign investment and growth in tourism."
South Africa is investing more than $2.5 billion in direct infrastructure support for its World Cup effort, a figure that represents 10 percent of its overall investment in infrastructure since 2006.
Jordaan says the stadium construction has created 14,100 jobs for "people who didn't have jobs before" and "the economic impact assessments suggest we will create 150,000 jobs and there will be opportunities to develop small and medium enterprises."
He also believes that hosting the World Cup will help further unite the nation.
"The World Cup will place South Africa on the global stage, it will strengthen our democracy and the process of nation-building," he said. "Let's not forget, we virtually had a situation where we had two nations. One black, and one white, that was at war with itself for many years.
"We are building a non-racial democratic South Africa that everyone in the country, whether you're black or white, you must have space and a place in this country. The World Cup will help that."
SOCCER AND RUGBY. There's little doubt that sports has already played a role South Africa's transformation. John Perlman, a veteran journalist and until recently a popular and influential radio show host, traveled into the nation's rural areas to get a sense of how residents felt on the eve of the 1992 referendum.
In what would be the nation's last whites-only referendum, voters were asked whether they supported continuing reforms that would completely dismantle apartheid laws and create a new constitution.
"One guy I met was on the extreme of the right wing," Perlman said. "He said he doesn't want political change. He's incredibly nervous of the ANC. But he said, 'Ek is mal oor my rugby' - I'm mad about rugby. 'But if a yes vote will bring the All Blacks [New Zealand's national rugby team] here,' our major opponents in rugby, 'You know what? I think I can live with all the rest.'"
The passing of the referendum enabled South Africa to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Rugby has traditionally been the nation's "white" sport. Blacks reserved their passion for soccer and considered rugby the sport of the oppressor. The rugby national team's green and gold jersey, to blacks, was a hated symbol of apartheid.
But Mandela pushed a "One Team, One Nation" slogan and urged blacks to support the Springboks. The traditional Zulu work song, "Shosholoza," became the team's unofficial anthem, which even Afrikaaners sang at the games. After an early South Africa victory in the World Cup, blacks and whites celebrated together in the streets. When South Africa beat New Zealand for the title, Mandela walked onto the field wearing a Springbok jersey as he handed the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar.
The crowd of 63,000, more than 62,000 of them white, began chanting "Nelson, Nelson."
"Quite unbelievable, quite incredible, what happened," said Bishop Desmond Tutu. "It had the effect of just ... turning around the country. It was an incredible transformation. An extraordinary thing. It said, yes, it is actually possible for us to become one nation."
SEEKING A TOURIST BOOST. For Perlman, the key question about South Africa hosting the World Cup is how deeply it will penetrate the population.
A ticket plan has been created to ensure that low-income South Africa residents will be able to attend games; putting lowest-priced seats at $20 compared to 2006 World Cup's cheapest tickets of $51. The Category 4 plan will make up 15 percent of the 3 million tickets.
Also, 120,000 tickets will be distributed free to low-income residents.
Fan Parks, in the style of the popular 2006 Fan Fests in Germany, are in the plans.
"Still, most people will not get tickets," Perlman says, "so how do you make them feel part of the event, and how do you ensure that the World Cup will create a true legacy?"
To that end, Perlman created the Dream Fields Project, designed to capitalize on World Cup excitement to create soccer fields and provide equipment to disadvantaged communities across the country.
For foreigners planning to attend the World Cup, the main concerns are transportation and crime.
At least 350,000 tickets will be offered through tour operators for fans who want to have their complete experience, from accommodation to transportation, taken care of.
About 17,000 murders were committed last year in South Africa. By 2010, the national police force will have increased by 31,000 to 195,000. During the World Cup, 31,000 police officers and 10,000 reservists will be deployed specifically on World Cup security. About $96 million has been allocated for new police equipment. Organizers will also tap into the corps of 320,000 registered private security guards.
"It's very important to distinguish between preventing and combating crime in general and to deal with a major event," says Deputy National Police Commissioner Andre Pruis. "In a major event you have a lot of known factors. You know the airports, the routes. Inside a city, you know to a large degree where people will stay. You know where the restaurants are, the pubs are, the tourist attractions, and, of course, the stadium."
Pruis said that 85 percent of South Africa's murders are of a "social nature," in which the perpetrators and victims know each other.
Pruis believes World Cup tourists will generally not venture into high-crime areas and that the areas in which they are likely to go will be vigorously patrolled.
Despite South Africa's high crime rate, 2006 set a record for tourists with 8.4 million foreign arrivals, according to South African Tourism. A decade ago, slightly more than 5 million foreigners visited South Africa.
About 250,000 Americans visited South Africa in 2006, ranking them third after British and German tourists. World Cup publicity, it is hoped, will help the country eventually reach its goal of attracting 10 million tourists per year.
A prime example of how South Africa hopes to parlay the World Cup into a tourism bounce can be found in the northeast province of Mpumalanga.
The province's capital, Nelspruit, with a population of less than 300,000, is the smallest of the nine cities that will be hosting.
Columns on new 45,000-seat Mbombela Stadium resemble giraffes, to remind fans of the Mpumalanga's attractions, which include the Kruger National Park and several private wild game reserves.
"You can spend the morning spotting elephants and other wildlife," says Wendy Tlou of South African Tourism, "and go to the game in the evening."
On one of the private reserves, Mala Mala, we've come to the end of a three-hour tour in which the scenery included lions, baboons, elephants and a leopard. The tracker, John, is a large, stern man who sat quietly on the highest seat in the back of the Land Cruiser, speaking only rarely, in Zulu, to our driver, Nico. Like when he somehow knew there was a male lion sleeping 300 yards away in the distance.
John is asked about the soccer, and sports his first smile of the day.
He was a central defender, he says, one who made life difficult for the forwards. And the World Cup coming to South Africa?
"Oh yes," he says. "It will be wonderful. I cannot wait."
(This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)