Thursday, Jul. 08, 2010

Africa's Future

When I moved with my young family to South Africa in 2006, the country was famous for three things — violent crime, AIDS and Nelson Mandela — and the chances of encountering the first two seemed larger than meeting the third. We took a house on the outskirts of Cape Town protected by infrared beams, bars in the windows, metal "rape gates" in the doors and, in the street outside, an armed private security patrol. After six months we were burgled; a year later it happened again.

But by then, reality was overtaking preconceptions. There was crime; a lingering, sometimes lethal racial intolerance; and an excruciating inequality between town and township. But that was offset by growing integration in the cities; rising affluence in places like Soweto, the huge African township on the edge of Johannesburg; and a new broad-mindedness that saw, for instance, the villagers of Limpopo accept as their champion the runner Caster Semenya, whose gender had been challenged after she won the world 800-m championship last year. The beauty of the place — the Cape sea, as cold and clear as ice, the stillness of the Karoo desert — lent the nation a serenity for which we were wholly unprepared.

Meanwhile, South Africa's preparations for the soccer World Cup, such as the building of new trains, rapid bus systems and airports, spoke of a country on the move. Even the country's struggles gave it a vibrancy. Friends in England would talk property prices. Friends in South Africa would debate the country's future. After a year, we bought a house with a thatched roof and thick whitewashed walls and, thinking we'd never find a better place to raise a family, decided to have another child, a third daughter born last month. When a friend used the Afrikaans phrase vrek plek, meaning "place to die in," to describe our new house, we understood that she was talking not about violent crime but a home.

If our ideas of the country were changing, so were my impressions of the continent. I'd read of an Africa trapped in a monotony of war, famine, genocide and death. And the grim stories were there. But Somalia, Darfur and Congo turned out to be the exceptions in a place where the norm was increasingly diverse, galloping opportunity. On my reporting trips, I was meeting coffee moguls in Rwanda, biofuel entrepreneurs in Liberia, offshore bankers in Mauritius and jazz impresarios in Ethiopia. Moreover, if you were backing China, I realized, you were backing Africa, because China was backing Africa with billions a year. African growth was averaging 5% to 7%. Africa's middle class was bigger than India's.

But knowing, strangely, is not always believing. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu tells a story about visiting Nigeria from apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and the pride he felt at spotting two black pilots manning an internal flight — only to panic when the plane hit turbulence that "those blacks" would crash. Many South Africans were aware of the new reality but still imprisoned by their old perceptions. I knew Africa was changing, but making the continent's case in print was not the same as banishing the ingrained doubt from my mind.

It took an opening whistle to do that. If the big idea behind staging the World Cup in Africa was to change outside perceptions of the continent, the surprise bonus is that it has allowed Africans to believe in themselves. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of fans was sudden, giant, cacophonous confirmation. And just as our faith caught up with our facts, it got better. South Africa scored a beautiful first tournament goal. Ghana beat the U.S. to reach the quarterfinals. Hardly a crime was reported.

Perhaps the most remarkable sight of the tournament came on its second day, outside the stadium in tiny, rural Phokeng. In the hours before the England-U.S. game, 44,000 fans in face paint and fluorescent wigs stepped off their coaches into a dusty African village, asking if there was anywhere they could have a beer. After a few moments of hesitation, the owners of 10 houses and a local shop threw open their doors, set up giant braais (barbecues) of chicken in their yards and started handing out quarts of cold beer. It was perhaps the most peaceful and gently inebriated meeting of two worlds in history.

Years of agonizing challenges no doubt lie ahead for Africa. But for a month, we've been living something wondrously different. At a rock concert in Soweto the night before the opening game, Tutu tried to put it into words. "Can you feel it?" he exclaimed. "You can touch it! It's unbelievable! I am in a dream!" He was — I think — talking about Africa's future. It is here.