A diamond in the rough?
June 18, 2012
England faced a barrage of noise and colour on their latest visit to Ellis Park in Johannesburg © Getty Images
When JP Pietersen danced over the tryline in the 73rd minute to give South Africa what proved to be a match-winning five-pointer, Ellis Park became a twilight zone. For the seven minutes that followed Pietersen's touch-down, as the sounds of ''Ole Ole' filled the stadium, it was easy to forget anything else existed.
It was easy to forget the part of town that the iconic venue is in the middle of. Once, the beating heart of the city of Johannesburg, the area became derelict and discarded in the last three decades and its occupants were usually nobody but the desperate. The suburbs that cushion Ellis Park are Bertrams and Hillbrow. The former has been profiled as poor, run-down, drug and crime ridden. One website, www.southafrica.to, calls it as "no-go zone at night." The latter is a colourful but for many an arms-length mini-Africa, where illegal immigrants and refugees seek shelter. Neither of them are on the recommended lists of places to see but a visit to both will provide an education in the one of the least known but most important faces of this country.
It was easy to forget that the people who filled the stadium were not representative of the country they live in at all. Most of the 60,000 people were white, a reflection not, on the popularity of rugby among the races, but of various economic factors that continue to cripple the equal development of people here.
It was easy to forget that this concrete cavern, which Bismark du Plessis had called the "home of South African rugby," had also once been a cemetery. Twelve years ago, 43 people were crushed to death within its walls during a football match between the two biggest premier league clubs making Ellis Park the place where the biggest stadium disaster in South Africa occurred.
It was easy to forget the feeling of falseness that pervaded after the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, when the harsh light of day revealed, not a unified and trouble-free South Africa that existed for the television cameras that day, but a country that still looked like a woman with last night's make-up on. The mascara tears fell thicker and with more smudge than before, the cracked foundation revealed haunting bruises and the faded lipstick was not a sign of glamour but of deep sadness that would take years to heal.
None of that mattered at Ellis Park on Saturday afternoon.
People who usually never venture the stadium's way turned out in their masses. Their cars lined the streets that are considered too dangerous to walk on, day or night. They brought with them chairs, skottle-braais (mobile gas barbeques) and booze and parked off on the pavement, cooking wors (sausages), having a drink and basking in the diluted winter sun. Hopeful hawkers made money selling scarves, caps, flags and other memorabilia at prices that would not be out of place in the more upmarket suburbs elsewhere in the city. For hours before the match, mostly because traffic would make it impossible to arrive in the area any later, these informal gathering grew.
Every few weekends, a scene of a smaller magnitude than this can be spotted when the Lions play in the Super Rugby competition. As the season dwindles on and the form of the home team becomes worse, as it inevitably does, the crowds get smaller and it's only on this one day a year, when international rugby comes to Johannesburg that a sell-out occurs. Then, for a few hours, life returns to one of the city's most dead parts.
The sound that life brings with it is more vibrant than any other. Newlands and Loftus may argue with Du Plessis about his statement, but even they would be willing admit that the Ellis Park crowd is a 16th man for the Springboks. It has been described as one of the most intimidating venues for an opposition to play in with former captain John Smit calling it "hell on earth," for visiting teams.
From the time the national anthem is sung (even though some parts are notably louder than others) to when the victory cry begins to sound, it's clear the crowd wants only one winner. That cry can take the form of synchronised clapping and chanting of "Bokke" or the Zimbabwean miners song which South Africa have claimed their own, "Shosholoza," or the evergreen 'Ole Ole' but whichever one it is it's seen as both a celebration of South African strength and a condemnation of the opposition.
South African fans are fiercely patriotic but strangely good natured and although they enjoyed taunting the few English supporters who were scattered among them, they also enjoyed their company. It helped that the visitors' party were easy to get on with and blended in well. They sang, danced and drank with the South Africans and even gratefully accepted their help, and gentle warnings about safety, when finding their tour buses after the match.
There's always a lesson when foreign fans visit a venue like Ellis Park, because they don't come with too many preconceived notions. They see it as simply the place where South Africa have lost only three times in 19 years. In reality, it is much more than that. But when there's international rugby, none of that really matters.
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