Making Our Own History

Trevor Jones is a Media Director in the Johannesburg office of Magna Carta, a four-time PR Agency of the Year in South Africa. Magna Carta is Ketchum’s exclusive affiliate partner in South Africa, providing the full spectrum of strategic communication services to blue chip clients in private and public sectors.

It always seems a bit grand and melodramatic to wonder out loud about “living through history”, mainly because usually you’ve no sure way of knowing whether a particular moment will one day come to be judged as historic.

But for anyone in South Africa right now, it is impossible not to be lifted by the rising tide of public excitement about the 2010 FIFA World Cup and wonder about history being made. Sure, a lot of it is driven by South Africa’s media which is doing a great job of making certain that the football, or soccer if you’re in the US, is not just top-of-mind but all-of-mind.

Beyond the media lines, though, you will find ordinary South Africans like me just thrilled about so many things to do with the World Cup. I’ve lived in Johannesburg all my life, through the bad times and the less-bad times, through violent unrest in the 1970s, states of emergency in the 1980s and surges of hope in the 1990s. Still, it’s this moment that feels like history to me.

What makes the World Cup feel like history in the making is that we really had to get our stuff together this time. We could not get by on mutual goodwill, feel-good sermons by our leaders and reliance on the 1994 anaesthetic of reconciliation.

No, this time we actually had to get over ourselves and overcome a growing sense of missed opportunities and dreams unfulfilled. We had to build stuff, a lot of stuff, complicated stuff – and spend money, a lot of money. (Okay, that last bit has never been a problem.) Still, we built stadiums and improved road infrastructure, with our first underground rail lines, an airport or two, better bus networks, more bandwidth, tourist accommodation, training facilities and on and on.

Of course, this being South Africa, we have arrived at World Cup kickoff by the least direct route possible, firm in our belief that we’re doing okay as long as the steps forward outnumber the ones in the opposite direction. This trait has provided much ammunition to the sceptics who can roughly be divided between bitter South Africans who celebrate any failure, and chunks of the English media. Steps backward are reported as calamity, steps forward all but ignored. We’re used to it.

But now, even before a ball is kicked, we have already succeeded beyond what many of us dared hope, and beyond what just about the rest of the world thought was feasible. The big important stuff that has long been regarded as out of Africa’s reach is done and we are ready.

That makes the World Cup a success for me before it even starts because there is truly nothing like proving disdainful, sceptical and hostile people wrong.

Media coverage is starting to turn from the readiness of stadiums and fan parks to matters more directly related to the game itself. Most of the teams are here and the biggest news seems to be about the latest player to break down with an injury.

But my personal historic moment is the opening of the Gautrain rapid rail. You can now travel around 25km from the airport to the business hub of Sandton in 15 minutes for 100 Rands, less than GBP10. For the boy who nearly 40 years ago made that journey on his bicycle just to see the first 747 jumbo jet arrive in South Africa, this is the really historic stuff.

The Vuvuzela

South Africa’s readiness for the World Cup extends deep into the world of mobile applications. The vuvuzela, for example, produces a sound that must have its origins in the wild, sounding as it does like a domestic squabble among lovesick hippos. Strangely enough, there’s an app for that.

Sir Richard Branson Learning to Blow the Vuvuzela

There is no amount of World Cup study and familiarisation with local customs that could prepare one for the sight of Sir Richard Branson learning to play the vuvuzela. Even we find some of our countrymen cringe-worthy, so how he keeps a straight face is surely an object lesson in brand discipline.