In Alexandra, the sun glistens atop rusty shacks. Three hundred and fifty thousand people are squeezed into an area that should house no more than 70,000, according to the Alexandra Renewal Project, or ARP. Many outsiders had likely never heard of Alex, as the locals call it, prior to the 2010 World Cup, and most wouldn’t have dared set foot inside.
But last week, there was Zube Rezaoglou, a German teenager, green beanie on her head, painting a tribute to the township on a long mural: a heart contorted into the shape of South Africa with the words “Team Germany” written beneath it.
Sixteen years after the systemic segregation of apartheid was dismantled, Alexandra, like Soweto, or the Cape Flats in the country’s south, remains a stark reminder that racial isolation is still alive. But in spite of its hardship, Alex proudly maintains its vivacity – and now it brims with post-World Cup confidence, too.
“The kids in Alexandra will have ambition [now],” said Katlego Malaka, 18, who lives in the township. FIFA, he added, “showed that they have trust in Alexandra.”
Fond words for soccer governing body FIFA? Strange but true.
FIFA hasn’t enjoyed the best reputation in South Africa, where people railed against its heavy-handed marketing rules and apparent disregard for street hawkers trying to make a buck during the month-long soccer tournament. The organization set the tone early on in this World Cup when it accused Dutch brewery Bavaria of “ambush marketing” via scantily clad Danish women, some of whom ended up in jail.
But the scene was different in Alex. The soccer body seemed to understand that it needed to give back as it enriched itself through ticket sales, merchandise and broadcast deals on the world’s poorest inhabited continent. For the first time, FIFA integrated its five-year-old Football for Hope movement into the tournament, choosing Alex as the setting.
The community was rewarded for its spirit—and, in turn, given more of a reason to look forward—as visitors and participants at the Football for Hope Festival descended on Alex. With the enthusiasm of German tourist Ms. Rezaoglou, and her peers from disadvantaged communities across the globe, Alexandra brought to life the airy slogan: “Development through Football.”
Thirty-two NGOs were represented in an extravaganza that was equal parts cultural exchange, program workshop and soccer tournament. Some groups came with HIV and AIDS in their crosshairs; others promoted work in combating homelessness or environmental issues, or peacebuilding—all topics of concern in Alex.
At Football for Hope, young residents marveled at the influx of tourists in their community. Some danced spontaneously for film crews while others, inspired by the top-flight soccer, made bold predictions of soccer greatness down the line.
The World Cup spotlight may even have spawned a new breed of entrepreneur. ARP project support officer Mabandla Mwela said an increasing number of residents who volunteered for FIFA during the Cup are now interested in starting their own public relations or hospitality businesses, if not simply pursuing stable careers in those industries. They are “becoming confident that they can run this thing, because they have been doing it,” he said.
FIFA plans now to build on the festival to create a permanent health and education center in Alex, but those two weeks alone were enough to show the world, and perhaps more importantly, the township residents, just what the area is capable of.
Visitors like Rezaoglou now believe in Alex, too.
“I would like to leave my memory and my legacy for the people here,” she said, painting alongside locals and teens from places as diverse as Israel and Palestine, Serbia and Senegal. With their help during the World Cup, Alex took a big step toward shedding its apartheid identity of blighted isolation.
— Each week, Africa Dispatch takes a snapshot of a different African place, offering a ground-level view of change on the continent.
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