South Africa: One country, different moods

THE weather at Port Elizabeth is a tease. Bright and sunny one moment, cloudy and gloomy the next. But the chill is consistent, the wind from the bay ensures it stays that way; it actually gets colder when the sun breaks out.

It snowed during the Italy-Paraguay game in Cape Town, and the entire cape is in for some sudden rough weather. On Sunday, Port Elizabeth was a seven degrees stiff, and it was expected to get worse on match day, with more rain expected. And in all that, Didier Drogba is expected to come out and deliver Africa from a tricky situation of under-performance of all the continent’s sides.

But, after the grey-brown sparseness of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth takes your breath away. It is a Legoland version of a town by the bay, though its smoothened edges could soon reveal an antiseptic aspect. Yet, after days, that you are not struck by motion sickness when you ride a car, is quite a luxury.

Quaintness is a quality that is spread over the town like garlic butter and while you wish to see a little of a fishing town roughness – even the salinity in the air and water is absent – you feel maybe it is a look put on for the World Cup. The town can have its horrifyingly ugly side too.

Alongside happy stories of the soccer, as it is known in South Africa, the morning front page news carry a horrific break-in, gang-rape tale. The stomach instantly turns.

If you look closely, there are clearly two Africas here. Port Elizabeth is the friendlier, easy-going idea of the South African life, while most parts of Johannesburg are the rough districts, so rough that the Ellis Park cafeteria doesn’t allow for beer to be taken to the media centre, for you could be accosted and it could be used as a weapon against you.

South African police law says that it should be had right there, preferably in front of the vendor. That’s all right, but what if I belch? How’s this World Cup going to feel then?

Apparently, some enterprising goons got fake volunteer accreditations done, entered the exclusive zones, knocked on some doors and robbed people at gunpoint. When they heard the news, journalists from the eastern part of India pulled their jackets tighter, monkey-caps closer and raced away on their keyboards so that they could leave early.

Of course, it could scare anybody and not being foolhardy is the credo in Jo’burg.

One was lucky to get to see the glitzier part of town though, when a miscommunication with the night cabbie, landed us in posh Melrose Arch. Here was clearly the white, moneyed South African having a good night out, served by coloured waiters and enjoying Australia’s misery at the hands of a rampant Germany.

With a giant screen beaming the late game in the square between a clutch of restaurants, people mingled and cheered. Stunning black girls in fantastic red evening wear sipped their wine, laughed at their white male friends’ bad jokes, who then blew smokes of ring in the air. Bikers in their gear hovered next to their gleaming machines, hoping someone would look at them.

No one did, but even with the area well-policed, you kept looking over your shoulder. Nothing of that happened at Port Elizabeth. After a few strong shots of their local rum and a rich skewered seafood grill at the Mediterranean, you waited in the cold rain to catch a cab. It was late, it was cold, but you promised yourself that you’d return the next day. And it had nothing to do with the extra-friendly waitress alone.

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