The World Cup Comes to the People of the Dew

How a small African tribe came to play host to two of the most powerful nations on earth. World Cup soccer comes to the People of the Dew

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The Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg in the North West Provinces.

To reach the stadium where the U.S. will play England in their opening World Cup match on June 12, head northwest from Johannesburg, cross the Crocodile River and aim for the blue hills on the horizon — at whose feet you will find Phokeng, town of the Bafokeng, or "People of the Dew." The tribe dates from A.D. 1140, and for centuries they wandered the dry plains of southern Africa as nomads. But in 1834 they came across a valley of moist pasture nestled against the Magaliesberg mountains, and their chief, Kgosi August Mokgatle, decided to settle here and name his people after their new home. The valley remains a mythic place to the Bafokeng, who form the majority of the 300,000 villagers in its 540 square miles (1,400 sq km). It is fast becoming legendary to another tribe too — development economists. The 44,000-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium, which towers over the village, is one clue why.

In 1856, white Afrikaners set up the nation of Transvaal in northern South Africa by the simple method of selling vast tracts of "unowned" land — including the Bafokeng territory — to white settlers. Unwilling to cede his new kingdom, Chief Mokgatle hatched a plan. He sent hundreds of men to work the Kimberley diamond mines in the southwest. Then he persuaded a German Lutheran missionary to act as their front man. It took years, but eventually the Bafokeng saved enough to buy back their kingdom. They nearly lost it again after a German geologist found 75% of the world's platinum under their feet, in 1924. It would take the best part of a century, including 46 years of apartheid and a mammoth legal case, before Bafokeng ownership was recognized once again. Today the tribe has controlling stakes in the two mining operations and is worth $450 million.

Much of Africa is blighted by the resource curse, in which natural riches like oil, gold and diamonds beget corruption, dictatorship and war. Not in Phokeng. Here, millions of dollars go not into Swiss bank accounts but into health, education and infrastructure programs. Yet this is no conventional plan for development. Millions have been spent on roads, schools, social housing, clinics and sewerage across the kingdom's 29 villages. But millions also went to the stadium, a world-class school and an elite sporting campus whose five-star hotel is the English base for the World Cup. By 2035, millions more will go toward an art and design center, a heritage park and several plush housing estates.

Sue Cook, a Boston anthropologist who came to study the Bafokeng and ended up staying to run their planning department, admits that the tribe is departing from the norms of poverty alleviation. But she argues that the showpieces are necessary to make the vision real. "People need to see it," she says. "Suddenly, you really can become a sommelier or a math genius or a sports administrator." And it's working. Though the program has been running for only four years, all of the Bafokeng's main roads are now surfaced; the sports campus, hotel and elite school are finished; the run-down state health center and four clinics have been refurbished and re-equipped; and there are 12 new mobile clinics and a 24-hour domestic-violence trauma center that has seen 1,200 women in 16 months. Education administrator Ian McLachlan says he has witnessed "mind blowing" change in his 55 schools. In 2005, the Bafokeng graduated 26 high school students. In 2009, there were 320.

It's results like those that mean Cook finds herself hosting more economists and delegations from developing countries. And it's the Bafokeng's enduring creed of single-minded pragmatism that explains how it came to host two teams from the world's most powerful countries at the biggest sporting event on the planet. "Throughout history, the Bafokeng adapted and negotiated and maneuvered every change and opportunity that came up," Cook says. In the heat of the competition come June 12, few of the visiting fans will likely register where they are and why. For the Bafokeng, it's enough to know that whoever wins, they themselves already have.