The headline across the front page of the Cape Times yesterday read: "Soccer mania sweeps South Africa", with the story reporting that "young and old, black and white, pouted their lips and blew thousands of vuvuzelas for Bafana Bafana". For those who have not properly tuned in yet to the 2010 World Cup, the vuvuzela is a small plastic trumpet which, unfortunately for those with an ear for music, has become ubiquitous across the country, and which you will (literally) hear a lot more of over the next month. And Bafana Bafana is the South African football team which even the most ardent fans don't expect to get beyond the first round.
Some 500 million people around the world will be watching South Africa's opening match against Mexico this afternoon in the amazing 95,000-seater Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, one of 10 stunning stadiums which will be used (eight of them purpose-built, on time and on budget). If they score even one goal, you'll hear the vuvuzelas in Britain. If they perform a miracle and win, they'll hear it on Mars.
South Africa of course has known miracles before. The peaceful end to apartheid was one. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was another, when the Great Miracle Worker himself, Nelson Mandela, used the game to assuage the simmering Afrikaaner resentment against the so-called Rainbow Nation; and the Springboks actually won.
The country, the recipient of a pretty poisonous world press, could do with a miracle just now and Bafana, alas, may not provide it. But on the eve of the first World Cup ever to be played on African soil, it is hard not to feel a tug of optimism. The vuvuzelas aside, it will, I forecast, be a truly fantastic event.
President Zuma refers to it as an event almost as important as the 1994 election, and if that is a tad hyberbolic, it is certainly the biggest thing here since 1994. Every city, every town has its flags and its colourful and cheerful street parades. Johannesburg came to a stop on Wednesday simply to welcome the Bafana team, causing the coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, to mutter darkly that it made his players feel they were already in the final. "We don't need this two days before a big match."
Football in 2010 has already performed a little of the miracle rugby did 15 years ago. Whites have traditionally shuddered even at the sight of the round ball – soccer is a black game, and whites simply don't go to black football stadiums. But last week they did, inadvertently: with their rugby stadiums in Pretoria and Johannesburg closed to them during the World Cup, 40,000 rugby fans had to journey to the Orlando stadium in Soweto for the biggest match of the season. Many ended up sharing their braais with the locals, going to the shebeens afterwards, and – yes! – blowing their vuvuzelas. Even in post-apartheid South Africa, that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. On the other hand, there won't be many black faces at the Newlands stadium in Cape Town tomorrow when the Springboks play France – rugby, despite Mandela, is not yet a black sport.
But on this occasion at least, whites have joined in the World Cup fever. All over the country street-sellers are doing a roaring trade as white-driven Mercedes and BMWs stop to snap up their South African flags and scarves. Every car sports at least one, and often two, South African flags and even wing-mirrors are clad in Bafana colours. It is hard to measure, but it may be that no World Cup has ever excited such a degree of enthusiasm, or united an entire population, as the 2010 event.
Behind the euphoria, there is no lack of pessimists of course, pointing out that South Africa has lavished billions of rand on vanity projects, when the money would have been much better used elsewhere. Some 15 billion rand (£1.3bn) has gone on stadiums which are not really needed, including spectacular 45,000-seater stadiums in Nelspruit, Rustenburg, Polokwane and Port Elizabeth which may never be filled again (and Fifa is struggling to fill now). There are new roads, a new state-of-the-art high-speed rail link which whizzes visitors into the heart of Johannesburg from the airport in minutes, spanking new airport terminals and much else, all to be enjoyed by the middle classes rather than the poor.
But for the moment, this is just carping. The ANC government has seized on the occasion as its great chance to showcase the nation and reverse some of the relentless bad press they have been getting, often unfairly. And it may work. First-time visitors to South Africa are invariably astonished by the first-world airports, hotels, roads, shops, restaurants, art galleries and banks. They arrive thinking of Johannesburg as a crime-ridden jungle of run-down mines and shanty towns, whereas it is a big, rich, modern city with high-rise buildings and sparkling shopping centres. It has crime, but it has lots of other things too, including a fantastic climate, and a million whites enjoy a pretty good life there. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, although this is mid-winter and it is not called the Cape of Storms without reason. It is not hard to fall in love with the country.
A month from now the visitors will have gone, and it will be back to real issues again. There are plenty of them: hard, grinding, stomach-churning problems. One can almost mouth them by heart: 30 per cent of the black population are out of work (against only 6 per cent for whites), the highest level of unemployment in the world; the push for black empowerment and white emigration has resulted in a chronic skills shortage which an education system rated as one of the worst in the world is doing little to fill; the enormous and growing gap between the poorest and the richest; the level of health provision is woeful (unless you go private, in which case it is outstanding); and then there are crime, Aids, corruption, racial tensions – and a president who goes out of his way to court controversy.
The South African writer Rian Malan, often hypercritical of a country he loves deeply, talks about South Africans basically becoming schizophrenics: despair at the corruption, crime and political incompetence, but hope provided by energy, resources, and a history of coping with insurmountable problems.
If South Africa can make a success of the World Cup, it can also tackle its bigger issues. Starting this afternoon, we will see how it gets on.