JOHANNESBURG – There was a dark mystique about the road to Rustenburg well before I even set foot on it.
It's treacherous, I was warned by friends in Johannesburg. Wild animals wander on it at will, and crime – car-jacking, in particular – is rife. Don’t even think about driving after dark, and if you do, don't stop!
Photo by EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
South African fans enjoy the FIFA Fan Fest in Sandton during their group match against France in Johannesburg on June 22.
A few days later, I was on that road in the middle of the night, after reporting on a late World Cup soccer match in Rustenburg. Hotels were full, and we had an early-morning appointment in Johannesburg, two to three hours away.
I was navigating a rental car down dark and largely deserted roads with the help of a GPS, half expecting its monotonous tone to kick in with: "At the sight of a wildebeest, swerve left." Or, "When the gunman steps out, hand over your cash and car keys."
Short on gas, I had to stop at a deserted garage. I could see the silhouettes of people moving inside the garage shop. I stepped nervously inside, and immediately felt like a complete fool.
There was a party atmosphere among the staff, as they argued among themselves – then with us – about the soccer match, while sorting through early editions of newspapers plastered with World Cup images. One of them blasted a vuvuzela.
It was four o'clock in the morning, and the World Cup party was still swinging on this lonely outpost on the Rustenburg road.
Of course we got back safely to Johannesburg, and with hindsight, the paranoia about crime, like most of the other concerns over South Africa's ability to host a successful World Cup were overblown.
Like most people who made the journey to South Africa, I'd heard about the country's horrendous crime and security problems, and had read predictions of open season on gullible soccer fans.
In reality, there has been some crime, of course, mostly petty. But for the most part, the massive World Cup crime wave was a bigger non-event than the performances of the English or French soccer teams.
Policing was beefed up, particularly in areas fans frequented, and special World Cup courts were set up to administer swift justice, though they've hardly been busy – less than 180 cases at the last count.
There were plenty of naysayers ahead of the tournament, doubting South Africa's readiness or ability to stage the event.
Instead it's been well run, a great party, with a very unique flavor and sound (those vuvuzelas!) of its own.
Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Spain play the vuvuzela at the end of the World Cup semi-final football match Germany vs. Spain on July 7 in Durban. Spain defeated Germany 1-0.
And wither apartheid?
I'd done plenty of homework before heading to South Africa, which left me wondering whether 16 years after the first multi-racial elections, the post-apartheid euphoria was wearing off? Racial inequality remains stark, corruption is rife, going to the heart of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). I wondered whether the dreams of the rainbow nation were beginning to fade.
But there too I found encouragement on the road to Rustenburg, the world's platinum capital. The fast-growing city sits on enormous riches, but is surrounded by townships, some with only the most basic facilities.
But close to the city's soccer stadium, on the outskirts of town, simple dwellings had been turned by their entrepreneurial owners into bars and cafes, packed with soccer fans, old young, black and white, some waiting for the game, others packed around television sets in crowded living rooms.
A young white South African couple told me it was the first time they'd been into a township and eaten "township food."
"The World Cup is really bringing South Africans together," they gushed.
You heard that so often, it almost became a cliché. But it also appears to be true.
One columnist in today's Mail & Guardian, a leading South African paper, said the World Club has brought a "social revolution." He said nobody expected the World Cup to trigger such "an outpouring of nationalistic fervor, or touch as many people from the country's many different race groups."
And that's certainly the way it felt as we were immersed in a noisy, friendly and multi-racial exuberance – from shops and taxis to bars, restaurants and the vast fan zones set up to view the games.
There was another lesson, too, on that Rustenburg road.
We'd spent an earlier night at a sprawling guest house, "just up the road." It turned out to be an hour and a half out of town, and was run by a white Afrikaner couple.
They were perfectly polite, but just off their dining room they had built what can best be described as a shrine to apartheid. It included the old apartheid-era flag and a big portrait of Hendrik Verwoerd, the man often described as the "architect of apartheid."
I was worried this would offend Gu Gu, our black South African coordinator, or our (black) driver Colin. Although I learned later that their biggest worry had been that it might offend me.
It wasn't that they didn't care, they just found it rather quaint – and ultimately irrelevant.
They were more amused than angry. They, and their South Africa, have moved on. And in their own way Gu Gu and Colin represented the confident new face of post-apartheid South Africa, that is increasingly asserting itself, proud that its children are growing up largely colorblind.
There's speculation that Nelson Mandela, credited with bringing the World Cup to South Africa, may attend Sunday’s final. He wasn't able to be at the opening game because the tragic death in a car accident of his great granddaughter.
For millions of South Africans, of all races, that would be a fairytale ending to a great World Cup.
Nobody I met is minimizing the challenges facing South Africa, but for all that, there is an enormous desire to make post-apartheid South Africa work. And hosting the biggest sports event on the planet has enabled South Africans of all races and backgrounds to proclaim that loudly to the world.