South Africa’s World Cup advice to Brazil—and a huge Waka Waka confession

Ready? Steady?
Ready? Steady?
Image: Reuters/Tony Gentile
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Dear Brazil,

When we hosted the World Cup in 2010, we taught the world some positive things about South Africa. But we, like you, also had to learn some heady truths about the politics of FIFA along the way. Still many of us would not change it for the world. What you need to know:

 1. You’re not the stars

Global stars with doubtable talent will hog your spotlight. In our case it was the yodeler Shakira. In yours, it’s one of the worst rappers of all time, PitBull, and weak-voiced Jennifer Lopez. At least there are some Latin American links to your headline acts; our affiliation with a Colombian was tenuous at best. Luckily, you saw more of Claudia Leitte—literally.

2. The government delivers when FIFA’s coming to town

In the run-up to 2010, we built new stadiums, set up working transport systems, spruced up airports and roads, all at the estimated cost of about $3 billion. Our first-ever high-speed Gautrain, the safest and most secure of all rail transport systems, was open just three days shy of kickoff. Development of our bus rapid transits (BRT), described by the then mayor as a “victory for the transport industry, the people of South Africa and the 2010 Fifa World Cup,” was fast-tracked and fancier buses than we’d ever seen were rolled out in 2009.

 3. The show will go on

As you would have realized by now, the World Cup is continuing, despite your protests and objecting tweets. Your outrage at the cost of the tournament in the face of the problems you face will be registered, but it will make little difference. It’s officially called the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. FIFA first, you last. The sooner that sinks in, you’ll save yourself disappointment later and maybe maximize your chance of enjoying the tournament.

4. Afterward, you’ll start seeing white elephants everywhere

That stadium everyone says won’t be ready on time, leave it. Save that money. The stadia we built are spectacular, but not many are financially viable. In Cape Town, for example, the stadium is losing so much money (they say about R40 million—about $3.7 million—a year) some residents have suggested that the city “just knock it down.” We’re also not proud of the Gautrain, with security so tight you get arrested for chewing gum. It can get you from the airport to the rich suburb of Sandton in less than 10 minutes, but it’s done nothing to improve the impossible transport system for the majority because it costs lots of money to ride and runs outside of the areas where the workforce lives.

5. Don’t get caught up in the hype, but bask in the glory

I hope it’s not too late to warn you of this: When we were selected as host nation, ordinary people started spending money to upgrade their bed and breakfasts to impress the fancy Europeans and Americans. As you can understand, we were first-time hosts, carrying on our shoulders the doubts of the world about our capabilities just because we’re Africans. Plus, we were hoping to rake in some foreign currency. Leave it to the government to pull out the fancy china—you, the people, are perfect just as you are. Despite FIFA’s goon-like reputation, most soccer fans (and you know this better than we do) are ordinary people just like you. It’s the natural beauty and warm habitat that have kept tourists coming back to South Africa.

6. It will make you proud, despite yourself

Brazilians complain that the official theme song, “Ole Ola,” features too much English. Then you might not be amazed to learn that after all these years, South Africans still don’t know what “Waka Waka” means. This is because it’s a phrase that features in none of South Africa’s 11 languages. It’s said to have Cameroonian roots. Still, we danced and sang along to the inane lyrics and by the middle of the tournament we did not care what they meant.

7. It will entrench some stereotypes…

It’s true, we love to show off Nelson Mandela. By 2010, he couldn’t walk that well, but we wheeled him out at Soccer City stadium anyway, and, as we suspected, the world went bonkers. It’s also known that we suck at soccer. You wouldn’t get this, but we’re so accustomed to our failure that we happily moved to cheering on others when we were kicked out. The world believes Brazil dances with feathers and sequins all day and spends long hours at beaches. Judging from the reporting this week, you’re not going to disappoint.

8. …and give you a chance at rebranding

The World Cup gives you an opportunity for the world to get to know you better—truly and deeply. First timers who took home the vuvuzela learned that we’re not just about crime and apartheid, we can get silly too. Many more saw that we are a beautiful country beyond what they’d ever imagined. Those stuck on our history learned that we are now a much better country, albeit trying to deal with our ugly socio-economic problems. We won’t lie: We want to see Brazil samba, but tell us a little bit more about who you really are. Those iconic favelas and the racial problem no one seems to want to talk about? No better time than the games to get the world to listen.