PRETORIA, South Africa — People here keep telling me I look South African. What they mean is that I look Afrikaner. (Yes, I'm white, and I dress poorly.) Looking Afrikaner sucks because inevitably you get approached by scary people who think they've found a fellow traveler.
This time it happened at halftime of the Spain-Chile game. There I was, parked in front of a concessions stand, snapping photos. A large fellow with a silly mohawk and a small fellow in a bright scarf forced their way into my shot. That's my excuse for why the focus is off. What follows is a paraphrased version of our conversation.
"You could sell that photo for 200 bucks," Mohawk informed me. He was drunk. He thought I was South African. He wanted to chat.
"Rand or real bucks?" I said.
"I keep real bucks on my farm," Mohawk said, patting the air as he would a dog's head.
"Ja," Scarf chimed in. "Impalas, springbok, kudus."
Get it? Bucks.
"You kill them and eat them," Mohawk said. He and Scarf also kill and eat giraffes and elephants. They own a farm outside Nelspruit. And then, after I made it abundantly clear that I was American and showed them my press credential as proof, the conversation lurched into another gear.
"Have you had any black girls?" Mohawk said.
The question lingered uncomfortably. Mohawk and Scarf acted like a couple guys just chatting over tea.
"Please take them back with you," Mohawk said, grinning.
"We share because we care," Scarf said.
I tried to change the subject back to the slaughter and consumption of animals. Mohawk and Scarf kept returning to the subject of blacks in South Africa. Black women. Black people. Black beasts. Always with a leer. It's impossible to describe how disturbing it is to be buttonholed in public places by people still stuck in the days of the pass laws and not only harangued with their beliefs but expected to sympathize. It surprises and rattles you every time. This would happen anywhere in the world, of course, but FIFA and South Africa have expended a great deal of money and energy pushing the happy tale of a Rainbow Nation uniting under the World Cup's banner, and it's more or less bunk. In the media here, you'll find stories like this, a one-source bit of PR handjobbery in which Dr. Nikolaus Eberl, the one source, is quoted as saying:
[T]he real victory for the nation lies not so much on the football pitch, but rather in the community halls. There people are coming together and we are seeing a revival of the Rainbow Nation, in other words, completing Madiba's legacy.
Is this Eberl on the FIFA payroll? Numerous websites say he's "currently engaged in internal branding for the 2010 FIFA World Cup." But let's not read anything into that. All I know is that Mohawk and Scarf would not agree with Dr. Eberl and that they would very likely shoot him and eat him.
Luke O'Brien is a writer in Washington, D.C. He's written for Details, Washington Post Magazine, Boston Magazine, SI.com, and other publications. He'll be filing dispatches from South Africa throughout the World Cup.