The World Cup was only a dream. That is its power.

It has been an interesting week as South Africans, hungover after a month of complete focus on football and hosting duties, debated the effects of the World Cup and pondered the future now that it’s over.

The weekend brought another emotional milestone – the 92nd birthday of Madiba. What a fitting tribute to one of the greatest men in history to have seen his country host such an important global event so warmly and professionally, and, no doubt more importantly to him, to see his nation truly united again.

A friend remarked to me that we should not be seduced or misled by the “Ayoba-ness” or euphoria of the World Cup. As a committed South African, he expressed concern that we may lose focus on the challenges that plague our country. If underlying divisions in our society and a lack of a sustained, genuine desire to achieve transformation are major contributors to our inability to solve these problems, was the World Cup not merely a distraction, or perhaps even a deception?

So let’s take a more critical look at what the tournament really means to South Africa as it enters the next phase of its life. With no major event to build towards and get excited about, it’s back to normal life for the first time in many years. As emerging economies become more powerful than at any other time in the modern era, South Africa has never been more prominent. Africa is finally beginning to rise and South Africa is acknowledged as the ideal bridge with the world. How will we fare in this role? Will the World Cup have any enduring effect?

GDP will spike an estimated 0.4% in 2010 but after factoring in the R40 billion bill to prepare and host, the tournament was not the money-spinner many had hoped for. The spike in employment in the construction industry (66 000 workers) was temporary, with most workers having been subsequently retrenched. The 40 000 additional police officers who were recruited and trained for the tournament (and served so effectively) will largely be retained, to the relief of all citizens. Most of the new or upgraded infrastructure will prove hugely valuable to our growing economy, although the magnificent new stadiums will probably be unable to cover their ongoing running costs without some form subsidisation. It is impossible to place a financial value on the enormously positive media coverage the country received and the international goodwill we created.

So it’s a mixed bag. The World Cup was not the panacea for all of our problems but overall the scales definitely tip to “successful”. Whilst important to balance the books, this analysis misses the key point – people solve problems, not soccer tournaments.

More than anything, a country’s success is determined by the talent and commitment of its people. If natural resources alone determined success, Africa would be the richest and most dominant continent on the planet, not it’s poorest. Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that a civilization’s success or failure was determined as much by its ability to respond to challenges as by the magnitude of the challenges themselves. JP Landman picked up on this when considering the depressed mood in early 2008 (especially amongst white South Africans). Capitalism and democracy, whilst imperfect, create wealthy and powerful nations because they are designed to empower ordinary people to use their abilities to better their own lives and, in the process, their societies.

It is the task of our leaders to create an empowering environment for the people to act within. Madiba showed how crucial effective and visionary leadership is by convincing South Africans to build their nation, rather than destroy it. Any student of history, politics or psychology would have predicted a far more tumultuous revolution when the minority finally relinquished power to an oppressed majority. Gratefully, Mandela was a student of a different side of human nature. He had the vision, magnanimity and calculated pragmatism to tap into the spirit of reconciliation that most South Africans probably did not know they had. Leadership, however, comes in more guises than just the president or the government. Our communal success in the magnificent World Cup can play this role of inspiring and uniting.

South Africans are a passionate and talented bunch, but prone to emotional rollercoasters. For us its either depression and despair about our doomed country or unbridled pride in the greatest place in the world. South Africa defied history and the critics with the 1994 peaceful transition to democracy and traversed many difficult times since then. Yet we regularly slip back into self-doubt and pessimism.

It is very encouraging to see great initiatives such as Keep Flying the Flag perpetuating the goodwill and desire of South Africans to build the country. Mandela Day’s 67 Minutes to Change the World campaign saw more people than ever involved in charitable and upliftment activities in their communities. Yesterday we really took on board Madiba’s plea: “It is in your hands to make of our world a better one for all”. People were more generous and committed then I have seen before and the effect of the World Cup in this regard cannot be discounted.

So is this a turning point or will it all be fleeting? As the weeks pass, many South Africans will once again focus on the seemingly insurmountable problems we face. The fickle international media, so scathing about our problems and inability to host the World Cup before it started, will just as quickly revert to the easy reporting line of South Africa as just another troubled African country. This is both the opportunity and the challenge we face post World Cup. We need to capitalize on the prevailing wave of patriotism and unity to galvanise South Africans in their commitment to build this country – both to grow it and share it fairly. We must commit ourselves to this not just for a month or two, and not just on Mandela’s birthday.

The country’s severe problems require the genuine dedication and initiative of all South Africans to tackle. Government has a huge role to play in creating a safe and functioning society and they must do this even without mighty FIFA breathing down their necks. Beyond government, however, this is incumbent on all of us, especially the “haves”. We possess the resources and influence to develop the country for the good of all citizens but do we have the unwavering desire? The World Cup must be seen in this light. It was nothing more or less than the greatest pep talk to the people of South Africa. If we can pull off an event of that magnitude to unanimous international acclaim in such a unified, focused and proud fashion, surely we can continue on our unlikely journey towards a united country that punches above its weight in all respects.

The World Cup was indeed only a dream. It was a month separated from reality where we shone brightly and did it together. We do not always inhabit the safe, unified country that was the darling of the international media in June/July 2010. But here’s the point – everyone tasted this dream and loved it. So rather than dismissing it or playing it down, this is the spark that needs to be nurtured and amplified to inspire all of us to make that dream a reality. How fitting a birthday gift for Mandela would it be if we all recommitted ourselves to building Mzansi to the great heights we know it can reach.

Happy birthday and thank you, Tata Madiba.

And well done Louis Oosthuizen, our new British Open champion. Keep the flag flying.

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Mzansi you made us proud!

I wrote this blog on Saturday night to try capture the mix of emotions I was feeling as a proud South African. In the stark light of post-World Cup Monday morning, none of those feelings have changed…

I sit on the eve of the 2010 World Cup finals with a bubbling mix of emotions – excited for what will be a magical day tomorrow and  depressed its the last one. But most of all, I’m proud. Proud of South Africa for a show none of us will ever forget.

It started in Zurich in 2000, when South Africa was pipped by the narrowest of margins by Germany for the right to host the 2006 event, as a result of the cowardly abstention (read betrayal) by Charles Dempsey. All was set right on 15 May 2004, when we nervously watched Sepp Blatter announcing the winning host country for 2010. My heart skipped a beat when the “S” and “A” peeked out of the envelope!

What followed was 6 intense years of preparation, infrastructure building, growing excitement and incessant doubting of us South Africans. Before “Waka Waka”, the soundtrack was more like “We’ll never be able to host this thing.” The chicken bone that stuck in the throat was the supposed Plan B of giving the games to Australia.

Ever the optimist, I consistently and staunchly defended South Africa’s ability to pull it off (we have proved it before with major events, although admittedly none as big as this) but I admit I did not expect things to go as smoothly as they have. As we are not renowned for the efficiency of previously hosts, Germany,  I anticipated overall success, but with organisational snags a constant theme. If  only we could keep the slip-ups to a manageable level, I thought, the African warmth and spirit would more than make up for late trains, long queues and a few muggings. In retrospect even I had underestimated us.

The lead-up to the games saw scepticism and pessimism reach new highs. The main culprits were the international media, none more so that the UK hacks, who predicted race war, bloodshed and organisational disaster. Many openly discouraged potential travelers from coming to South Africa. The regrettable robberies of some journalists and teams in the week before kick-off made world headlines. Walking with expensive equipment in a bad part of town will get one in trouble in most major cities across the world but it was too easy to see these incidents in the context of a supposedly dysfunctional, criminal society.

Now that the tournament is nearly over, it is astounding to hear universal praise for the hosting of the tournament, with many high profile names calling it the greatest ever staged. Sceptics like Franz Bekenbauer have admitted this and encouraged FIFA to give South Africa the rating as host that we deserve. For two great pieces, read British journalist John Carlin, author of book upon which Invictus was based, (http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=6&click_id=2871&art_id=iol1278688227809J526) and Roger Cohen in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/opinion/06iht-edcohen.html?_r=1), who described the tournament as “the first magical World Cup” .

So how did Mzansi (South Africa in Zulu) cause a critical media and the world in general to fall in love with us in just 4 weeks? In short, we are a country of miracles and an amazing spirit that enables us to overcome our significant challenges. The peaceful transition of 1994 set the tone and we have revisited our reservoir several times since. Arriving with such negative preconceptions, journos and tourists were shocked to find warmth, safety and, in general, excellent organisation.

With the eyes of the world on us like never before, we needed to produce a showstopper and we did. The effect of this cannot be understated. Every tourist I have spoken to has shared their intentions to return and “tell everyone back home” to do the same. Business confidence increases when we prove our ability to deliver a world class product with an African flavour. The anticipated GDP spike is great but the legacy is much more important. Despite plenty homegrown whinging, the billions spent on hosting must be seen in this light. Much of the spend improves infrastructure for all (such as transport, telecoms) and even the (supposed white elephant) stadiums gave the WOW factor that helped to create the unprecedented international praise for South Africa. Soccer City, in particular, embodies this. I have been fortunate to watch sport in many stadiums around the world and nothing touches the Soweto masterpiece. It’s innovative design concept, as a calabash (African cooking pot), is not just clever and beautiful. It hides the ability to move up to 95 000 spectators in and out of the ground seamlessly and quickly. There are bars, food counters and toilets outside every block, so queuing is rare, even in the typical halftime rush!

However, much more important than any of this, is the effect the World Cup had on us as ordinary South Africans. The genuine warmth and pride in our country we showed to visitors but also to each other made this one of the best months of my and South Africa’s life. This is best illustrated by my interaction with my new friend Blessing Zwane. Blessing lives in Meadowlands, Soweto and we met in a small, authentic shebeen we stumbled upon to watch the England-Germany game, before heading off to Soccer City later that night for Argentine vs Mexico. We spoke a few days later and Blessing offered to host us in his house the following week. So off trekked a combi full of friends from the privileged Northern suburbs (many of whom had never set foot in Soweto prior to the World Cup) to the proud home of Blessing and his wife Thandi, for lunch and drinks and to watch the Brazil-Netherlands game. The hospitality and food were incredible and the neighbourhood kids were clearly intrigued to have 30 mlungus (whiteys) over for lunch! In the midst of hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors, we managed to connect with our fellow South Africans like never before.

Sport has this power. In 1995, the Rugby World Cup was a critical event in pulling our new democratic country together for the first time. It was a very special time that all South Africans look back upon with fondness and gratitude. 2010 is, however, a different level. 15 years on, the country had come a long way but needed another unifying event to silence our self-doubting make us realise again just how special this country is. That the rest of the world has seen this too is a massive bonus.

South Africa continues to face severe challenges, notably extreme poverty and income disparity, very high levels of crime and corruption and structural challenges in education, power and healthcare. The World Cup will not solve these. What it does, however, is act as a permanent and glowing reminder to the special people of Mzansi that we have defied the odds and shown the sceptics time and again. And we will continue to do so in the future. With amazing memories and even greater unity and pride.

Thank you Mzansi – you made us proud!

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