Africa spreads its dreams under Ghana's feet
I watched last night's Spain-Portugal match at a crowded bar in Yeoville, a cosmopolitan but dilapidated neighbourhood on the ridge overlooking Johannesburg's city centre. The beers were passed through a heavy security grille. The cheers and jeers came in French, Shona, and a dozen other languages, from a mixed crowd of Congolese, Zimbabweans, Ghanaians, and many others.
Yeoville was once the trendy, bustling "Notting Hill" of Joburg but an influx of poor immigrants from across Africa has changed it dramatically over the past decade. Rightly or wrongly, it is now branded with an ugly reputation for muggings, Nigerian gangsters, and urban decay.
"You would not believe what this place was once like," said a South African friend, Ezra, regretfully, as we walked in the dark down Rockey Road towards the bars and restaurants at Times Square.
But last night Yeoville seemed to be in the grip of something quite special - a mood of pan-African unity fostered by the World Cup and now hitched to the fortunes of Ghana, the last African team in the tournament. "For once in Africa we have everyone united from Cape Town to Cairo," said Junior Yele from the Democratic Republic of Congo. "It's fantastic. We are all behind Ghana." I asked him about the growing speculation that there could be another wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa after the tournament.
"We're not scared," he said. "At this point everyone is united and we hope things stay that way. We think it's just a couple of people trying to scare people." There were nods from the crowd around us.
On the kerb outside a stall offering cheap phone calls to the rest of the continent, I ran into Willy Kalala, a Congolese immigrant and sharply dressed property entrepreneur. Two of his brothers had flown in - one from London, one from Kinshasa - for a family funeral. They had all bought tickets for the Ghana match. "We're always talking about Europeans," he said. "But we want something to change in Africa. We're encouraging black empowerment." He said the impact of the World Cup went far beyond football. "It will affect every domain, including the economy."
So a lot of African hopes are hanging on Friday's match - and the real possibility that Ghana could go further than any other team in this continent's history. There's talk of an open-top bus tour around Yeoville on Thursday by South African and Ghanaian fans. But I don't think that defeat would sour the mood too much. Six African teams qualified for the finals. Some played well, some did not, and some were just unlucky. That's football. On and off the pitch, Africa has plenty of reasons to feel proud, and united. Let's hope it lasts.