In Arcadia, Playing for South Africa’s Future Energy and dynamism expressed only in soccer games

PRETORIA, South Africa – (Notes from October 2009). The other day I was walking from my Court Classique Hotel to a nearby little Spar supermarket. Only a short walk; however not without dangers. There is a standing warning not to walk there alone after dark, as crime is rampant in Pretoria; thus no need to take chances. Anyway, it was day time and I went. To get to the Spar supermarket I had to walk across nearby Arcadia Park.

Soccer in the park

It turns out that this was the time of day in which several soccer teams composed exclusively of black young people congregate there, taking advantage of the large, open and grassy terrain to play on. Walking back from the store, I strolled by one of these impromptu soccer matches.

Well, I am no expert. But I saw an impressive action. One young man, fit, very athletic (and good looking) had the ball. He raced across the field like a missile. An opponent was confronting him. But he retained control of the ball.  As he was racing towards the goal area which happened to be close to where I was standing, I clearly saw the expression of his eyes. I saw in him a genuine spark of keen intelligence and determination. He was running with the ball towards the goal area; then a faint, a stop, a double faint and dribbling and racing past all opponents, almost effortlessly. All this in a matter of a few seconds.

I was astounded by the energy, by the display of athletic elegance, by the supreme mastery of the game. Speed, intelligence, drive, intensity, focus. I saw all of that. And I was riveted in admiration. This is part of young South Africa. Only a small part; and it should be nurtured and helped. But how?

Sad looking workers

A different day, another venue near the hotel. We are in Arcadia, an old white area in Pretoria. So, as a legacy of apartheid, there are so many public amenities, including another big garden: Venning Park. And it is quite nice. Because of some recent rain, all is pretty: the grass and the flower beds. A few days ago, as I strolled through the big garden, there were many workers tending to the grounds.

There must have been more than 30, all wearing blue overalls. And I looked at them. Moving slowly, very slowly. Looking forlorn, sad, certainly uninterested in whatever their tasks might have been. Most of them doing basically nothing. One here slowly raking something. Another pulling some weeds. In essence, it was not just lack of a spark: this was a dispirited lot.

Most of them probably illiterate, speaking only their local language, and no English. Most likely temporary workers hired under some kind of “make work” public works program aimed at cutting down the staggering  “official” unemployment of about 25%. (The real unemployment is estimated to be well above 30% nationwide). But these are the black faces I see the most around here: sad, dispirited. And here we are, in Pretoria: this is one of the richest cities in South Africa and therefore in the whole of Africa.

South Africa’s future?

What will happen to the young man who displayed such athletic artistry in Arcadia Park? And why is it that the only great display of energy and talent I saw in this city was during an engaging soccer game?

Can these South African kids go to school? In theory, yes. In practice the system is in poor shape. And what do these kids learn? In what physical conditions are the schools? There was a story in the papers of one particular school in which all the windows are broken — all of them. And when winter comes, here in Gauteng Province, (starting in May, when it is Summer in the Northern Hemisphere), it gets really cold because of the altitude.

Well, if we have problems with our rather disorganized schools in Washington DC, imagine what is it like, not so much here in (relatively prosperous) Pretoria, but in the more remote and much, much poorer Provinces of South Africa: in rural Limpopo or Mpumalanga. Imagine those schools, (assuming they exist). Imagine the quality of the teachers. Imagine the conditions of the buildings. And here is where the seeds of South Africa’s future supposedly are planted and cared for.

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