Soweto stirs the soul
World Cup 2010: Pretoria
The Sunday morning service at the Holy Cross Anglican church in the township of Soweto was in full swing when I sheepishly appeared at the door.
I had been drawn in by the sound of singing, whooping and laughter (but no vuvuzelas) - and could not resist investigating.
I was immediately struck by the sight of a smiling, happy congregation who genuinely looked to be having a wonderful time. Moments later an old man dressed in his Sunday best appeared and invited me to join the procession working its way along the centre aisle towards the altar.
My attempts to politely refuse fell on deaf ears and I suddenly became a small part of a service that was vibrant and uplifting.
It was Father's Day and all the dads in the church headed to the front before Reverend Steve Moreo spoke to his congregation.
"All men can make babies, but not all men can make fathers," was one pearl of wisdom that met with huge approval.
My young son is 5,617 miles away in England and although I am not a religious man, to feel part of something so welcoming and inclusive on my first Father's Day almost brought a tear to my eye.
The church provided a warm welcome
The church was simple, even humble in its decoration, with a wooden cross above the altar - but the warmth of the atmosphere inside was priceless.
But even inside the church it was impossible to ignore the fact that the World Cup is here: running across the ceiling above the altar was a banner with the flags of all 32 competing nations.
Outside in the winter sunshine, tourists spilled out from coaches, eager to see an area soaked in history.
Across the road from the Holy Cross is the spot where 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot on 16 June 1976 as schoolchildren marched against a government legislation that decreed they must be taught in Afrikaans.
It was a moment that sparked riots in townships across South Africa and the Soweto uprising become an important chapter in the struggle against apartheid. It is now commemorated every year on Youth Day.
A short walk takes you to Vilakazi Street, where both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived. Locals are proud to tell you that it is the only street in the world that can claim two Noble Peace Prize winners had houses within yards of each other.
The World Cup is a new chapter in the history of Soweto. Photos: AFP/Getty
Many of the tourists were clearly football supporters taking time out from following their team to learn about South Africa's troubled history - although I thought the huge inflatable kangaroo that I saw one Australian fan carrying around was a touch unnecessary.
It all had a slightly surreal feel to it and I found it difficult to process my emotions. On the one hand, it felt a little as though a place that had witnessed so much violence and struggle had become just another stop on the tourist trail.
But then again, the tourism must help the economy and it is great that people want to visit and further their understanding.
Pastor Eddie Nxumalo of the Fountain of Life Community Church in the Dobsonville area of Soweto certainly felt that the World Cup had been good for the area.
"Soweto after the World Cup is going on to the world map like never before," he said.
"Also, many of the people that have helped to build the infrastructure for the World Cup - the nearby Soccer City stadium and the improved roads - are ordinary people from Soweto and the skills they have gained will give them confidence."
Soweto is on the outskirts of Johannesburg and stands for South West Townships. The population is close to three million and is a place that has changed incredibly since the end of apartheid. It now boasts shopping malls, good restaurants and a burgeoning middle class. Many are black professionals who've succeeded in their chosen career and opted to remain in the township.
But areas of incredible poverty with huge social problems remain. Pastor Eddie told me about some of his community programmes, many of which involve people with Aids or children orphaned after their parents were killed by the disease.
Anti-apartheid activist and long-time Soweto resident Walter Sisulu once claimed that the history of South Africa could not be understood without an understanding of Soweto.
It is a township that is changing and evolving - much like modern South Africa itself.
And Pastor Eddie, a gregarious man with a wonderful lilt, firmly believes that the entire nation will benefit from hosting the World Cup.
"There are people who say there are not any long-term benefits," he told me.
"But it is a step in the right direction because we not yet there as a nation. Racism is an ugly enemy that we need to destroy and the World Cup is a tool that helps us to do that.
"After the World Cup I am telling you that we will be a different nation altogether."
I suspect that many will disagree with him, but I thought it was wonderful to hear such optimism about the future of the Rainbow Nation.