African business, politics and lifestyle
Searching for it — not quite feeling it — in Polokwane
The soccer fan fest sounded like a wild party with the vuvuzela horns booming through the empty streets of Polokwane town, one of the smallest of 10 venues for the first World Cup on African soil.
Everyone must be there, we thought as there was little happening on a Saturday night in the northern South African town centre.
But on closer inspection the soccer fan fest — loud as it was — was also pretty deserted. Soccer fever had yet to reach Polokwane.
A sleepy town of just 500,000 people, it was hard to imagine Polokwane, which means place of safety, would host its first World Cup soccer match in less than 24 hours. In Johannesburg or Cape Town you could definitely “feel it”. Here we weren’t so sure.
Driving through the town’s eerily deserted streets searching for a restaurant where we could eat and watch the soccer, we discovered that was not an easy find. Even the local Nandos restaurant on the main street shut by 8 p.m.
It was also hard to imagine what long-term benefit the town would see from being a host city. While for the four matches to be played in Polokwane the few hotels on offer for tourists were full, otherwise there were plenty of rooms at the inn.
No team was staying there which would bring with it the adoring fans or news-hungry media and the associated business. Those playing were flown in for pre-match training, again the day of the match and ferried back straight after.
Police closed down the roads near the stadium on the edge of town the night before the first match. But those fearing traffic similar to the four-hour long queues witnessed in Johannesburg trying to get to Soocer City need not have bothered.
The streets were empty, the car parks empty and — just 30 minutes before kick-off — the stadium was half empty.
By the second half, the stands were just about three-quarters full, though the blasts of the vuvuzelas compensated for the missing supporters.
On the second match day, Mexican fans brought a blip of excitement for one night after their win against France, taking locals by surprise. But the next day sleepy Polokwane was once again empty.
The Peter Mokaba stadium almost looked like they hadn’t had time to finish painting it, with the stark grey concrete of the outer wall contrasting with Soccer City in Johannesburg’s brightly coloured exterior.
The inside was still coated in construction dust and most of the refreshment stands remained shuttered and closed during the match. Just two hours after the players left we found ourselves the lone figures in a dark stadium struggling to see the keyboard as we tapped out the finishing touches to our stories.
The name of the stadium was controversial. Mokaba was the African National Congress (ANC)’s youth league leader who regularly used the phrase the “Kill The Boer,” one which strikes fear into the white Afrikaner minority and which was more recently taken up by current ANC youth leader Julius Malema to outrage from his opponents.
When the Cup has gone, there is no guarantee a local soccer team will even use the pitch. Residents said the Rai Stars disbanded long ago and the nearby promising Black Leopards team are based more than 150 kilometres away in a less than World Cup standard stadium.
The Dynamos train 100 kilometres away. Neither team play in the country’s top league.
“You can’t help thinking this huge stadium will just be derelict and empty in a few years time,” said one hotel worker.