Combine Mardi Gras and carnival and sprinkle in the fourth of July, and you can get about ten percent of the vibe of South Africa right now. Over the last 24 hours, between the jubilant cheerleading of Bishop Desmond Tutu at the opening ceremony to BLK JKS teaming up with Alicia Keys to Bafana Bafana's heroic showing in the opening game, the country is in constant elation, wrapping every visible surface in the rainbow colors of the South African flag (including their own bodies) and making the sound of plastic horns more regular than silence.
After sharing some prep time with BLK JKS on our first day and night, we spent the next day wandering around the city. Our man about town Mzu took us to a perched hill in the city center where local residents go to pray and have open air services. From the top we surveyed the whole city while an unseen group sang hymns down the slope.
A few hours later, we were on the verge of tears when BLK JKS appeared on-screen with Alicia Keys at Orlando Stadium during last night's opening ceremony. To get a good view of the megascreen at one of the many fan parks around Jo'burg, we got a table at the SA-version of Applebee's, though it seems you can get the best steak of your life pretty much anywhere in this country. When Alicia hit the stage, we abandoned the beef and ran outside. The video below cannot convey the reception in the streets of this makeshift supergroup covering Brenda Fassie's "Too Late For Mama." The sound wasn't great, but everyone knew the song so well that it didn't really make a difference. Tons of people sang and danced along, making it pretty clear that the song was a solid choice. Of course, as soon as it was over, the local television station cut to a commercial, only to come back for the end of an epic rendition of "Molalatladi" after cutting "Lakeside" entirely. But we did get full sets from FADER favorites Amadou & Mariam and Tinariwen and a bunch of other awesome stuff, so can't be too mad. Coincidentally, this particular fan park was shared by locals and the visiting Mexican contingent, creating a vortex of noisemakers the likes of which human ears have never known.
The following morning, we'd agreed to tag along with South African artist Willem Boshoff, whose residency at Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery is called Big Druid in His Cubicle and consists of him living in a lofted area of the warehouse space and going on "druid walks" on Main Reef Road every morning to mind garden. Willem, if you can't tell from the photos, is the world's most awesome person. He drives around in a camper that makes little kids fall over laughing and collects foot rulers because he got lead poisoning from stepping on paint chips. He's like Robert Wyatt and Santa Claus in one and has an amazing accent that sounds like a plucked banjo.
For 30 days he will walk this road and search for inspiration for his art, which most of the time looks like this...
While Willem pondered his place, we stared at the best security signage we've ever seen.
Back in the city center, our crew split to experience South Africa's opening match against Mexico, which many presumed would be Bafana Bafana's first disappointing loss and the country's first emotional setback. Thanks to a Brazilian series of one-touch passes and the sniper-like left foot of Siphiwe Tshabalala, though, a crucial draw was secured. Only by a collective set of inches was South Africa denied a victory on several late-game near misses after Mexico's aging marksman Raphael Marquez tied the game in the 79th minute. Despite the momentary post-game disappointment, this was, in my opinion, the best opening game of any World Cup in recent memory on every level. Let's hope it sets a trend.
A moral victory was essential after the country received the heartbreaking news earlier in the morning that Nelson Mandela's 13-year-old great granddaughter had been killed in a car collision with a drunk driver on her way home from the opening ceremony. No matter your outlook on life, it hardly seems fair or just that such a tragedy should take place. The game's outcome ultimately may not have mattered, but for a country so used to hardship, the effort and heroism of Bafana Bafana was more than a consolation, it was proof of a country's spirit.