Cape Town is often compared to Vancouver. The similarities are not entirely superficial. Both have sublime settings between mountain and sea. Both flaunt their beach culture. Both are major ports and gateways to their respective countries. And now they have something else in common.
A few weeks ago I was visiting Cape Town, the city of my birth. Fever for World Cup football (soccer to us Canadians) was building. The huge new stadium was complete. Excitement was in the warm air, but something else as well, a strange sensation that at first I could not put my finger on. Then it hit me. The city was experiencing something eerily similar to what Vancouver had recently gone through just prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics - a serious attack of nerves about whether they would be ready and able to pull this thing off.
Local newspapers were full of stories about cost overruns, corrupt contracts, insufficient hotel beds, inadequate transportation infrastructure and rapidly approaching deadlines. Not to mention serious questions about why the South African government had spent billions of rands on state-of-the-art stadiums that it can't afford and that no one really needs when a large chunk of the population still does not have access to formal housing, clean water or electricity. The makeshift tin shanties lining the freeway from the airport into Cape Town are just the tip of a massive iceberg. Visitors arriving for the World Cup will not be able to avoid noticing the discrepancies.
Then there were the paroxysms of fear about the country's notoriously rampant violent crime. How are the authorities going to protect all those nice foreign-currency fans from the random assaults, rapes, carjackings and murders that are the Rainbow Nation's stock-in-trade headlines?
But Cape Town is funny that way. It is if anything even more laid back and seemingly easygoing than Vancouver, and its residents pride themselves on a certain provisionality, just-in-time solutions. Or perhaps it is simply avoidance at work. Don't be fooled by that laissez-faire beach culture: Cape Town does crime as well as the other World Cup-venue cities do. So the nervousness was somewhat masked, but I picked up the unmistakable scent. And with some justification, it seems.
It turns out that FIFA, soccer's governing body, may have sold South Africa a bill of goods. Tickets remain unsold. The committed international visitor numbers are way off projections, and FIFA's marketing branch has reportedly leased only a small percentage of the overpriced corporate boxes in the gleaming new stadiums. Meanwhile, locals hoping to cash in on the party by either renting out their homes or offering services to the punters are finding that FIFA's long reach has effectively shut them down, unless officially sanctioned (read: hefty commissions to FIFA).
And yet it seems that many South Africans, black and white, are pinning their hopes on this global extravaganza to somehow pull themselves and their country out of the miasma of its multiple problems, to lift this achingly beautiful yet benighted country to some new level of prosperity and stability. Talking to people in Cape Town, you could really feel this - a kind of suspension of disbelief, or perhaps just natural optimism born of living in such a stunning place, that if only they can pull this off, the city would right itself, would be able to get on top of the mounting problems in its own backyard, such as crime, pervasive drug and sex trafficking, HIV-AIDS, staggering unemployment (officially at 34 per cent when I was there, but estimated to be closer to 40 per cent) and a national government that seems remote and at cross purposes with the Mother City's liberal values and political history.
So, as South African writer Rian Malan explained recently in an article in the London Observer, the World Cup turns out to be "an event of huge symbolic importance" to the most unlikely beneficiaries: the poor underclass of blacks who have never risen to the heights promised by political liberation and the triumph over apartheid.
What lies beneath this improbable expectation is the country's dirty not-so-secret secret. Increasing numbers of blacks, who voted overwhelmingly - although less so in the Western Cape - for the African National Congress in the past, no longer believe that the ANC government will lift their lives up. They have lost faith in the face of growing corruption, nepotism and some 16 years of unfulfilled promises. Especially, it seems, in Cape Town. So they pin their hopes on the World Cup instead.
Reading the papers in Cape Town, you could be forgiven for thinking that South Africa is on the way to becoming yet another African basket-case. The political scandals, reverse racism (now against whites) and decidedly undemocratic pronouncements by some in power are so outlandish that in Canada they would lead to the downfall of governments. Here they are just so much copy.
So the dream for many who experience this on a daily basis is that come kickoff day on June 11, the world media's attention will turn to South Africa and find something redeeming. And they might still do so. South Africa remains a place of astonishing contrasts and vitality. Its people, accustomed perhaps to living on the edge, have an amazing capacity for optimism and creative adaptation. And Cape Town is still the most beautiful city in the world. Just like Vancouver.
Lance Berelowitz is a Vancouver-based urban planner and the author of Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination.