South Africa leaves lasting impression

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:31 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG - After more than a month in South Africa, seeing 20 football matches, taking 16 flights and travelling thousands of kilometres have produced memories and emotions that would fill the continent of Africa.

There is the football of course. The World Cup is about football and getting the opportunity to see the best football-playing nations in the world is nirvana for a football fan.

But the football was only a background to the landscape that is South Africa. It is a magnificently colourful landscape that can be stunningly beautiful one moment and devastatingly ugly the next.

To pretend to understand a country as complicated as South Africa after being here only a month, is unrealistic, simplistic and would do this country great injustice.

It is a country that has existed for centuries, yet is barely 16 years young in its post-apartheid incarnation.

It is a country where people still talk openly about white, black and coloured being distinct classes even as it tries to create a colour-blind society.

It is a country with much to offer and even more potential to grow.

It is a country where its richest resource is its people. No matter what colour, no matter what class, no matter what economic standing, they all showed they have one thing in common . . . big, inviting hearts.

So after a month we are left with images -- big, bold, indelible images -- that rent your emotions like a compass needle trying to find a place to settle.

There is the image of making the short trek from Cape Town to Robben Island, one of the most infamous prison islands in the world. It's where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years along with hundreds of other prisoners.

You ride the same ferry that took prisoners from the mainland to the islands. If you catch the late afternoon ferry, you see the island appear out of the mist and wonder what kind of fear rippled inside the prisoners as they saw the same thing knowing they would not leave the island for years, if ever.

As you wandered the prison corridors, the former inmate giving you the tour grew quiet as you asked him if anything had changed.

"No, nothing has changed," he said quietly. "Right here is where they took my friend away one day. He never came back. They told me he had been released back to his family but they never saw him."

But just as vivid was the change in his demeanour when he talked about "our leader" Nelson Mandela and what he had done for South Africa.

Gone were the beatings, the poor food and the bars to be replaced by the hope of what South Africa could become.

There is the indelible image when you climb to the top of Cape Point where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. It is breathtakingly beautiful, one of the best views in the world no matter which way you turn.

There was the memorable drive from Johannesburg to Nelspruit to watch Italy play New Zealand. It was like turning a channel on a television set. One moment you are in flat lands, the next in farm country, a half-hour later in the foothills only to climb low mountains before descending back to the lowveld.

There were a multitude of grass fires, some almost licking the asphalt of the highway. No one seemed concerned. The four-hour drive was a coffee-table book of South Africa that was only missing the beaches.

Then there was the stadium in Nelspruit, sitting like a $138-million giant alien ant, yards from dilapidated township housing made up of tin and mud homes.

At the gates of this housing complex stands a woman selling homemade food but there are no customers. She stares at the alien ant with loathing.

If one could capture an image, it would be at an orphanage in Johannesburg, a baby orphanage. This orphanage is one of hundreds in South Africa. It's a small baby orphanage that has helped 45 babies, a drop in the ocean considering the massive problem of kids without parents in South Africa.

But when asked whether it gets discouraging, she smiles and says if she can save even one baby, it is worth it.

As we leave the orphanage there's a snapshot that is seared in my mindseye:

The 60-year-old, white former businesswoman who opened the orphanage in her home is holding a three-year-old African baby. Both are smiling in happiness.

That image is South Africa's past, its present and the hope for its future.

morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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