World The Games Were Just A Sliver Of It All


Jun 1, 2004
JOHANNESBURG -- Alexandra is one of the few places in South Africa not ringed with razor wire. There are no high walls here, no fences, no security guards, no signs promising an armed response. There is no protection here, because there is nothing here to protect.


It is a desperate place -- for an American, Alexandra redefines the meaning of poverty. It is a warren of dirt roads, hemmed in by row after row of hastily built shacks. They look like the forts that children make. The walls consist of tied-together sheets of corrugated tin, plywood, packing crates, old signs and kitchen counters. The makeshift roofs are held down by cinder blocks, broken TVs, boots and tires. Some of the shacks are literally built on top of garbage heaps.

There is no plumbing here. There are communal outhouses, but rather than holding their breath, men choose to stand beside them to urinate, making rivers in the gutters. Electricity comes through illegal channels, thick cables running under the red earth and between stripped-down cars. Some of the shacks have aerials; none of them has windows.

And in the near-distance, just across a highway, on a hill rises Sandton and its glass towers. Sandton is Johannesburg's richest area, with posh hotels and fine restaurants. There are Porsche, Lotus and Audi dealerships there. Inside the air-conditioned mall, mostly white South Africans and tourists shop at Gucci, Bally, Ed Hardy. It is first-world wealthy, and the thousands of lost souls in Alexandra, standing in their ****, can see it from their stoops.

South Africans often call their country a miracle. It is divided in every possible way, and yet it hangs together. It has a new flag; it has a new president; it has platinum and diamonds in its mountains and lions running over them.

It's impossible to know that kind of country after only 31 days. It's impossible to digest hundreds of years of history in a month.

But that's plenty of time to fall in love.

Most of us who have come here will leave changed. We have seen things that we'll carry with us forever: a bull elephant looking through our truck window, Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island, the beautiful valleys on the road to Durban, the impoverished streets of Alexandra.

We'll see those things in our heads long after we've returned to our trim bungalows and New York City flats. Now when we see South Africa on the news, we'll see more than just those pictures beamed via satellite; we'll see our own mental photographs and snapshots. We'll see faces. We'll see Sifiso in Nelspruit and Easy in Johannesburg and Alan in Cape Town. South Africa is no longer abstract for us. It's become more than an idea. It's this incredible place that we've called home for this incredible time.

Now we have a stake. Now all of us have something to protect.

The poison is called "two step." It's actually a pesticide called aldicarb; it looks like gunpowder, fine black grains pinched between fingers. It's called two step because when a guard dog eats a little bit of it, fed through a fence, the dog will walk two steps and then fall over. A human might last a few steps more.

It's for sale on the streets of Alexandra. Stolen handguns and rifles can be bought here, too. Drugs, fistfuls of bullets, knives and toxic potions -- name a terrible thing, and it's in somebody's coat or under a board in the floor.

Then those terrible things are carried out of Alexandra -- carried past the mural that reads: "HIV positive? Need a cd 4 count?" -- and into the suburbs and farms, where people live behind walls and fences, and their guard dogs lie poisoned and dying on their lawns.

At some point, maybe even miracles won't be enough to sustain South Africa.

In 2008, the people of Alexandra got angry. They turned their anger not on the whites or the wealthy, but on African immigrants -- people who are worse off even than they. Zimbabweans, Namibians, Malawians … more than 60 of them were killed and 700 injured in sporadic violence.

Now, the immigrants are being warned once again to get out. They are being accused of taking too many of the crumbs that have dropped under the table. Pamphlets have been circulated, with fresh warnings and a deadline to leave: today, July 12, the day after the World Cup came to a close.

The world has been watching South Africa for a month. More than 40,000 new police have walked the streets. Crime has been low. But today, we're going home, and some of the police will be laid off, and immigrants will be receiving more pamphlets under their doors. The stadiums in places like Nelspruit and Rustenburg, where people drink water out of the puddles in the parking lots, will serve as reminders of how the rich choose to spend their money. Packets of two step will change hands, and guns will be tucked under shirts. Sandton will be sitting just there, across the highway, on top of the hill, and someone in Alexandra might get an idea.

Apparently, a terrible DVD is making the rounds among white South Africans. It's called "The Night of the Long Knives," an echo of the early Nazi purges. Most people believe it's just an unnecessary scare tactic, an idle threat, a means to incite and inflame. But some people believe in The Night of the Long Knives. Some people believe that the end of South Africa is one old man's passing away.

Nelson Mandela is 91 years old. He is frail. He will not live much longer.

This country exists because of him, and there are real fears that it will not after he's gone.

According to the DVD, there will be a one-week moratorium after Madiba dies, seven days of peace and respect. Whites who want to leave will be allowed to leave. They can pack up their belongings and head north, or they can board planes and ships and flee across the oceans.

On the eighth day, all bets will be off.

On the eighth day, the miracle will be over.

It is an apocalyptic prediction, "District 9" come to life. To those who remember the faces of Sifiso in Nelspruit and Easy in Johannesburg and Alan in Cape Town, it seems impossible. This country has come too far, has gone over too many hurdles, for everything to fall apart now. Too many people believe in this country. Too many people love it.

On Sunday, 84,500 people gathered inside a beautiful stadium and cheered and sang at a soccer game together.

But in Alexandra, the worst seems possible. In downtown Johannesburg, where the Nigerians squat in burned-out buildings, it seems possible. In the puddles in stadium parking lots, it seems possible.

Two steps, and we all fall down.

Or maybe, just maybe, Alexandra will save South Africa. The worst seems possible here, but so does everything else.

Against all odds, life is being scratched out there. There are tuck shops operating in front rooms. There are hair salons with cracked shards for mirrors. There are mechanics fixing those stripped-down cars, and there are boys waiting with rags to wash them. There are rickety fruit stands laden with oranges. There are vendors selling scarves and flags, and there are Zimbabweans who aren't afraid to announce that they come from the Zim. There are groups of men gathered in the street who have never heard of two step. Not everyone in Alexandra knows where to get a gun.

It's been only 16 years since apartheid and its apparatus fell. Nelson Mandela spent more time in prison than South Africa has been free. It's hard to imagine, but 16 years ago, Alexandra was much closer to violence. So many countries with more to lose have fallen apart over less. South Africa really is a miracle.

But miracles don't just happen. People have to will them to happen. Apartheid ended not only because of the long struggle fought here, but also because we joined in that fight. Just because the World Cup has finished doesn't mean the world's responsibilities to this place have also ended.

Over there is Sandton and here is Alexandra, but there are a thousand places in between.

One night last week, we went to a semi-legal bar in Soweto called the New Spot. A woman wrapped in a blanket greeted us warmly. We ducked inside her garage and drank cold bottles of Castle. She put some music on, Beyonce and James Brown; "Steel Magnolias" was on the TV. She told us that she had just opened her bar. She had been in the Old Spot for 13 years, and now she had found herself here, in a bigger and better place, and we found ourselves with her. The power went out, but that didn't stop the fun. She pulled out lanterns, and we sat in the blue light and drank. She took our photographs -- Americans, Canadians, Englishmen, Mexicans, Argentines and South Africans -- and she had us sign her freshly painted walls with markers. We wrote our names on her walls, and the cities we were from, and she marveled at these strangers having landed in her garage from so many places in between. Now she had proof. Now she knew where to find us, and she gave us big hugs when we ducked out her door. It was a beautiful night. It was another night that we'll remember forever.

What have we learned after 31 days in South Africa?

We can never leave.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.

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