A word to the wise: Any public statement about South Africa will be seen through the lens of race, even if it is about something as harmless as sports.
This lesson was learned recently by Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, the president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world's governing body for soccer.
Egged on by a persistent BBC radio reporter at a press conference in London late last month, Mr. Blatter admitted that FIFA had alternate locations for its 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, which is currently schedule to be hosted by South Africa.
Blatter's statement made headlines on sports pages worldwide, a perceived warning to South Africa to speed up its seemingly sluggish preparations, or else risk losing the World Cup.
South African officials were apoplectic. FIFA officials were apologetic. A follow-on FIFA statement reaffirmed that except in case of a "natural disaster or catastrophe… there is no such a thing as a contingency plan. The plan B has been and will continue to be South Africa."
A matter of pride
The imbroglio may have been settled for now, but the exchange speaks volumes about South Africa's sense of pride, as a rising African economic and political power, and its somewhat touchy attitude toward criticism, as a post-apartheid nation ruled by its black majority.
That South Africa is behind schedule in construction, compared with past World Cup host nations such as South Korea and Germany, is not the question. Many experts admit it is. But the South African government seems to regard questions about its ability to hold a world-class soccer match as unpatriotic, and even racist.
"Once again our media have ignored facts to cast doubt where others have shown confidence in us as a country," said Themba Maseko, a government spokesman, at a press conference in the capital city of Tshwane (formerly called Pretoria) last week.
"Some of the reports indicate a failure or an inability to interrogate and check the facts before rushing to print sensationalist headlines, thereby, behaving in a manner that potentially undermined the interests of all South Africans who could be served by hosting a successful World Cup tournament," he said.
South Africa clearly has its work cut out for it. Originally planning to use its network of massive rugby stadiums to host the 2010 World Cup, the South African government changed its mind to build five new stadiums and billions of dollars of infrastructure projects around the country, leaving a legacy of post-apartheid renewal.
Some $2.1 billion will be spent on infrastructure by the time the World Cup matches begin in mid-2010, more than half of that on the refurbishment of existing stadiums and the construction of five new stadiums.
The race to build by 2010
Some of these venues, such as the Green Point stadium in Cape Town and a stadium in the northern city of Polokwane, have just begun construction in the past month.
Last year, deputy finance minister Jabu Moleketi announced that it was necessary for work on the five new stadiums to commence in January, in order to be finished in time for the 2010 World Cup. Beyond stadiums, South Africa will also rebuild and widen roads, build new airport terminals, light-rail transport systems, telecommunications facilities, and the like.
While the government insists that the new Gautrain rail-link between the Oliver Tambo Airport in Johannesburg and the suburbs of Johannesburg will be operational by 2010, the links to the Loftus stadium in Tshwane will not be completed until the middle of 2011.
"When the Germans built the stadium for the World Cup finals, it took them longer than the time that's left for the South Africans, and remember, this is Germany!" says Tim Cohen, editor of the review section of The Weekender newspaper in Johannesburg.
"So you can understand, FIFA is taking a risk by giving the World Cup to [an African country] for the first time. It's absolutely a major event. Billions are involved," he says.
It's tempting, of course, to view the World Cup as "only a game." But holding a World Cup match in Africa, and particularly in South Africa, has meaning that goes beyond sports.
"If we succeed in organizing this event, we will give ourselves, as Africans, a voice and a face in the global arena, to change the terms of African identity with conflicts in Darfur, with catastrophe, with war," says Achille Mbembe, a professor of history and political science at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg .
For South Africa, the stakes are even higher, he adds. "This is an opportunity for South Africa to control its identity as a transnational, plural nation, one of the only places on earth where the question of race has been dealt with. This is a chance to celebrate our diversity."
Soccer as national equalizer
In a sports-mad country like South Africa, soccer is one of the few truly level playing fields for blacks and whites.
Unlike rugby and cricket, which are dominated primarily by white Afrikaners or English-descendants, respectively, soccer is the closest thing to a universal sport.
On soccer fields around the country, whether in leafy private schools or in dusty township playgrounds, boys and girls hone their skills to become like local soccer heroes such as goalkeeper Rowen Fernandez (white), or a top scorer Kaizer Motaung Jr. (black).
Kaizer Motaung Sr., father of Kaizer Jr., and owner of the Soweto-based Kaizer Chiefs – the most successful professional soccer team in South Africa, if not the continent – says that the 2010 World Cup will have a huge effect, both in changing the world's attitude about Africa, and also changing the view of South Africans about themselves.
"South Africa has hosted a lot of major events in the last five years, from the Rugby World Cup to the Cricket World Cup," he says. "This is a chance to educate those who think that South Africa is backward. It can compare with any Western country in the world."