With a month to go, World Cup of contrasts awaits

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The World Cup kicks off in South Africa in a month, and what awaits hundreds of thousands of visitors is a nation of contrasts.

A country once defined around the globe by its brutal, institutionalized racism will be the showpiece of Africa, the first of its nations to host the top tournament for the planet's most popular sport.

A place beset by poverty and crime, and plagued by AIDS, is hopeful that its moment of worldwide attention — from the opening game June 11 to the final on July 11 — will provide a spark for both business and tourism.

"I think South Africans want to celebrate this event," said Udesh Pillay, who oversaw research looking at what the World Cup could mean to South Africa, resulting in the book "Development and Dreams."

"They want to use it to showcase their country, its beauty, its ability, its competence."

The World Cup is a chance "to re-brand and give our country a new image," Greg Fredericks, chief of staff for tournament organizer Danny Jordaan, told lawmakers in Johannesburg who summoned him for month-to-go update on preparations.

"We know that Africa is seen as a dark continent," he said, citing stories by foreign journalists who have focused on unemployment, inequality and high crime in reporting on South Africa and the World Cup.

"I don't think they could believe that a country here on the tip of Africa could organize an event as big as the World Cup," Fredericks said. "This World Cup will definitely help people to change their perceptions of Africa."

Visitors will be warmly welcomed by black and white South Africans, who traditionally place great importance on showing hospitality to a stranger and who have been admonished by tournament organizers to be on better than best behavior during the World Cup.

Fans will see five new stadiums and one — Johannesburg's Soccer City — that was so completely overhauled it might as well be new. South Africa spent $1.3 billion to get 10 stadiums ready for the World Cup, while road and airport construction was speeded up for the tournament.

South Africa's scars also will be on display.

Tourists will be wary of crime, and there's no guarantee the country's famously restive work force won't use the World Cup platform to strike for more pay.

The April death of a white supremacist leader, Eugene Terreblanche, focused attention on racial tensions, though police blame black farm workers they say had had a wage dispute with Terreblanche. South African police have announced they had confiscated weapons and arrested suspects linked to white right-wing groups, but stressed there was no threat to the World Cup.

Blacks for the most part still live in poverty, and the gap between rich and poor has only grown since 1994.

The end of apartheid was also the beginning of a national experiment in building unity. Sport has been used to move the process. Recalled in last year's hit film "Invictus," black President Nelson Mandela made a statement at the 1995 rugby World Cup final by wearing the green and gold jersey of the Springboks, the country's national rugby team many blacks associated with the most racist whites.

Pillay, a researcher at South Africa's Human Science Research Council, said the World Cup "now is the emotional glue that holds the country together."

While soccer fans might be shocked to see beggars — black and white — outside gleaming shopping malls, South Africans are used to living in two worlds at once.

Think of the legions of black maids who leave shacks without running water or electricity, boarding buses before dawn to travel into white areas to clean palatial homes.

Or think of the whites who knew but did not acknowledge the price of their apartheid privileges. In his memoirs, novelist Andre Brink described an idyllic childhood in rural South Africa, where everyone noticed when two unmarked graves appeared on a farm, but did not act on that evidence of how the farmer had dealt with black workers who had challenged him over wages.

Brink writes that he did not fully wake to apartheid until he was a college student in Paris in 1960, reading with horror about police officers in Sharpeville killing 69 black South Africans, including women and children, to put down a peaceful protest.

Johannesburg businessman Mandla Sibeko summed up the contrasts: "South Africa, we're a crazy nation.

"The world is going to be amazed at how hopeful and how patient South Africans are."

Sibeko, 31, grew up in eastern South Africa, one of the country's most impoverished regions. He studied under a tree when he was a boy because his village had no school building.

A teen when apartheid ended, Sibeko went on to university, earned a law degree, then started an investment business. He began planning for the World Cup soon after South Africa won the bid in 2004. In 2008, he went into partnership with a British company that specializes in advertising at stadiums, and together won the bid to coordinate ads at the World Cup venues.

He won't say how much the contract is worth, but says "it definitely will put me in a place to go even bigger."

Sibeko said World Cup "is the moment when we stand on a platform and show the world how far we have come."