News story

Postcard from the field: South Africa

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

One week into the World Cup, our man in Pretoria struggles to keep a stiff upper lip. Read his update

Peter Kerby, deputy head of office, DFID Southern Africa

Picture of Peter Kerby

What a week it’s been. Where to begin? Perhaps by admitting that my British Civil Service stiff upper lip has faced a few challenges.

This was South Africa welcoming the world through words, music and dance which transcended any sense of rehearsed show. Forgive the hyperbole - but the event shone with joy, from Desmond Tutu’s uncontained excitement through to the bands on stage through to those enjoying events from the floor. High on the goose bump scale. Tough on the stiff upper lip.

The sense of welcome that night was all around. I bumped into a group of Mexicans in a coffee bar. Their team was facing the South African Bafana Bafana the next day. But all the talk was of the warmth and sheer joy they’d picked up from people here. And their happy astonishment at the number of locals who’d stopped them in the street simply to say - ‘Welcome to South Africa!’.

Like I said last time, this is not Africa as a ‘problem case’ or ‘beneficiary’. Its an Africa which is proud and credible and excited to be on the world stage.

OK. I might have had one coffee too many with the Mexicans. But to be woken by the half-elephant-half-angry-bee blast of vuvuzelas at dawn next day was pushing it. Driving to work, kids on street corners were still blowing on the horns they tried to ban. And by lunchtime, the roads were packed with cars making their escape from work to watch the first match. Each and every one with a yellow bafana bafana shirt behind the wheel.

Earlier, we’d been awarding prizes to the best office makarapa. You’ll probably know what that means by now. Makarapa (singular lekarapa) are hand-cut and painted hard hats of the kind worn by miners and construction workers. For South African football fans, they play an important decorative role (whilst protecting heads from hard flying objects).

But I’ve just learnt the word makarapa originally meant ‘scrapers’. It referred to the men who would leave their families and villages to go to the mines and city construction sites to ‘scrape’ a living. An apartheid factor which split families and helped sow the seeds of the South African HIV epidemic.

One reason why there are now 5.7 million people in South Africa living with HIV. That’s more than any other country in the world. For over a decade after the fall of apartheid, we watched the tragedy unfold in the face of South African official denial and inaction.

But there’s good news too. About 18 months ago, South Africa changed direction and set about revitalising the health system and tackling HIV and AIDS head on. In April this year, the world’s largest ever HIV counselling and testing campaign was launched with the aim of reaching 15 million South Africans by the middle of next year. The Department for International Development is doing what it can to support this new drive - such as donating 42 million condoms this year, helping to improve access to medicines and helping reduce the transmission of HIV from mothers to their babies. There’s no doubt that the challenge ahead for South Africa is still huge. But the political leadership to deal with HIV is now there - and that offers hope.

As I write this, one week after things began, there’s a more sober feel to the streets and cafes. Bafana bafana lost heavily to Uruguay on Wednesday night. But I know that hearts will lift again over this weekend. Those vuvuzelas need to be back in top form again before South Africa meets France on Tuesday.