JOHANNESBURG — Having seen one impossible dream come true — the death of apartheid — Soweto is getting ready for another: the arrival of soccer’s World Cup, the most-watched sporting event on the planet.
The vast township on Johannesburg’s southwest fringe is one of many that South Africa’s white rulers built to house armies of black workers banished nightly from white areas. Spartan, cramped and meagerly funded, even Soweto’s African-sounding name was a white bureaucrat’s contrivance, an acronym of “southwestern townships.”
A cauldron of violent resistance to apartheid and a one-time home of Nelson Mandela, Soweto is now a critical part of South Africa’s latest step into the international spotlight when it hosts the World Cup in mid-2010.
It helps that Soweto is soccer-crazy, boasts of being the birthplace of South African soccer and produces its best teams — the Pirates, the Kaiser Chiefs, the Swallows. So not surprisingly, it offers the World Cup not one but three stadiums.
Two have been refurbished for World Cup practice, and a third, Soccer City, has been built on the edge of the township. It will host the opening game and the final.
Where South Africa is concerned, sport has long been bound up in race and politics. Rugby and cricket were seen as white men’s sports, so soccer became the sport of blacks.
Sports boycotts were an important part of the international campaign that led to apartheid’s end in 1994. A year later, the rugby World Cup became a watershed of interracial reconciliation when Mandela, the country’s liberation leader and first president, walked onto the field to congratulate the victorious, mostly white South African side.
Now soccer’s World Cup is coming to Africa for the first time, and Sowetans like Sipho Vilakazi are already pouring heart and soul into making it a success.
The 44-year-old restaurateur envisions fans packing his rooftop terrace, drinking in the sights and enjoying ribs and oxtail stew before heading to nearby Soccer City. He and his family plan to demolish their small storefront eatery and build what Vilakazi calls a “mansion restaurant.”
But will the fans come, given Soweto’s reputation for poverty and crime? Vilakazi is sure they will.
“If you say you’ve been to South Africa and not been to Soweto, then you don’t know South Africa,” he said. “It’s where you feel the change [from apartheid]. People are free. I’m a proud Sowetan.”
Vilakazi’s place is already popular with tourists who visit museums of the fight against white rule, the graves of its prominent victims, and the small brick home where Mandela lived as a young lawyer and activist before going into hiding.
In 1976, an uprising that began in Soweto left hundreds of dead in the township and across South Africa in clashes with police as they protested against discrimination and an edict requiring blacks to be taught in Afrikaans, the language they associated most closely with apartheid. The bloodbath proved a harbinger of the broader uprising that engulfed the country in the 1980s and ultimately led to Mandela being freed after 27 years in prison and leading the country through its first multiracial election.
Soweto has roughly 1 million residents, more than 40 percent of Johannesburg’s population, and they generally earn just a fraction of the incomes of the city’s whites. Orlando Stadium stands near a squatter camp of tents and tin-and-wood shacks. But there’s also a new playground nearby, and signs of prosperity and civic improvement abound. The government has invested in parks, roads and other infrastructure, and private investors have built malls and housing.
Since South Africa won its bid to host the World Cup, taxpayer money has become available for Soweto’s sporting needs. It’s evident in the new three-year, $43 million facelift that has transformed rundown Orlando Stadium into a gleaming new structure of concrete and steel and doubled its seating to 40,000.
The sport that began in Soweto finally has the stadium it deserves, says Stanley Mlambo, director of capital projects for the city of Johannesburg. And after the world goes home, it can host local sports, concerts, conferences and weddings, Mlambo said.
Orlando is only being used for World Cup practices. The nearby 94,000-seat Soccer City will host eight of the 64 competitive matches, putting Soweto at the center of the tournament. Soccer City cost seven times what it took to rebuild Orlando, and resembles a giant calabash in gleaming red and gold tones, a nod to African design.
Amos Lijo, a 25-year-old engineering student who has lived in Soweto for most of his life, strolled past a neighborhood soccer game in Thokoza Park, near his home. He said the park used to be a virtual wasteland until the city cleaned it up in 2003. It now has a giant television screen. Lijo said he has a TV at home, but will watch the World Cup matches in the park to share in the vibe.
The World Cup is “going to bring a lot of change,” Lijo said. “Not just for Soweto, but for the whole country.”
Nthateng Motaung, who runs a bed-and-breakfast, said her eight beds were already booked for 2010. She said she was aided by a government-driven campaign to help small businesses in places like Soweto cash in on the World Cup.
Motaung expects the month of World Cup play to be “hectic,” and remarks on how Soweto tourism has changed.
Foreigners used to come for a “township” experience of home-brewed beer and outdoor toilets. Nowadays, she said, they want en suite bathrooms, Internet access and satellite television.
Motaung, 38, was born and raised in Soweto. Today, in a place with such an abnormal past, her concerns are refreshingly normal — taxes, advertising, the cost of equipping guest rooms with TV.
But she still has to reassure prospective visitors who associate Soweto with crime and racial violence.
“They still think Soweto is the way it was. Soweto was bad because of apartheid,” said Motaung.
Now, she said, “Soweto is very cool.”
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