A little South Africa in SoCal

LAKE BALBOA, Calif. -- The World Cup begins Friday morning, L.A. time, with host South Africa battling Mexico in Soweto, and there will be millions around Southern California with a vested interest in what happens.

And not all of them will be rooting for Mexico.

A sizeable South African community in and around Los Angeles also will be watching closely as their homeland is spotlighted as never before, and their hope is their country, and their continent, will make a most favorable impression.

South Africa's soaring crime rate and concerns about its infrastructure are worrisome, to be sure, but the monthlong festival will highlight the country's culture, the passion of its people and the steps it has taken since the dismantling of Apartheid in 1994.

Headquarters for L.A.'s South Africans will be the Springbok Bar & Grill on Victory Boulevard in Lake Balboa (in the San Fernando Valley), a restaurant/pub opened seven years ago by four South Africans who became friends while playing rugby and cricket in L.A. One of the quartet, Graham Taylor, is back home for the World Cup, but the other three will be presiding over a party atmosphere -- and hoping Bafana Bafana, as South Africa's national soccer team is known, will defy the experts.

Peter Walker, 40, immigrated to America from Cape Town with his family when he was 16, settling in Los Angeles after stops in New York and Atlanta. Trevor Nettman, 43, and Robin McLean, 35, arrived in the 1990s, during the final years of National Party control of South Africa. They're Americans now, but, as Walker says: "You can't get away from [your background]. Who you are is who you are."

"We're a diverse country," says McLean, who, spurred by "Beverly Hills Cop" and Tom Cruise's character's lifestyle in "Cocktail," left Durban with "a set of golf clubs and a surfboard," landing in L.A. in 1994. "We're hard-working and very patriotic. We're very proud to be South African. I'm a citizen of America now, but my family is still there, the sports I watch and play are still there. I try to bring a little bit over to America. That's why we opened the bar, to let people come and see [what South Africa is about]."

They expect to see followers of many of the 32 nations competing in the World Cup in the Springbok -- named after South Africa's national animal, the mascot of the country's world-champion national rugby team. The pub will be open for the 7 and 11:30 a.m. starts and tape the 4:30 a.m. games to show later in the day.

Soccer is the most popular sport in South Africa, but it has traditionally been followed primarily by the black majority; the white minority, Afrikaaner and British, have favored cricket or rugby. Integration in these sports has occurred since the end of Apartheid, an official policy of racial segregation and oppression of the black majority that took effect in 1948 but was built on human rights abuses dating to the 1920s.

"We've got a more integrated rugby team, no doubt," McLean says. "I'd say a quarter of the players are now black. Youth organizations and camps are taking underprivileged kids, and they're becoming good rugby players. They're going into the townships, and they can run as fast as the wind. They just need to learn how to catch the ball, and off they go."

Bafana Bafana remains predominately black -- defender Matthew Booth is the only fully white player on the roster, although there are a couple of multi-racial players -- but the team's white following has grown.

"I'd definitely say over the last 15 years, since Apartheid has fallen, like the movie 'Invictus,' there's been a lot of crossover. So there's a lot of interest," Walker says. "The white South Africans spent a lot of time watching [English] Premier League games growing up. We definitely watch our soccer. We like our soccer."

Rugby remains the top sport, at least among whites, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 50 million residents, and that won't change "while we're the world champions," Walker says. But if "you look at any international rugby game now played in South Africa, you'll see as many black fans in the stands as you will white fans. And I think the World Cup soccer, you're going to see a lot of the same."

Rugby is what brought the Springbok partners together. In their online bio, they says they "noticed the lack of a really good rugby bar and decided that the time had come for us to do something about it."

"We're four mates who met playing rugby, and we always used to have barbecues -- we call them 'braais' in South Africa -- so we'd get together and have a braai and drinks and hang out. Inevitably, you end up with 30 or 40 people there. So we basically figured why not do it as a business."

The Springbok's aim is to be a slice of South Africa in L.A., but the clientele is far more diverse than that. Says Walker: "We get a lot of 'ex-pats,' meaning more than just Englishmen these days: South Africans, New Zealanders, Australians, and your usual English, Scottish and Irish guys."

There also is a sizable African contingent, "a lot of guys from Rwanda who come by, a lot of Ghanaians, Zimbabweans ... all the African countries," McLean says. "Us being a South African bar, an African bar, they come here."

Rugby, of course, is a huge draw -- during the 2007 Rugby World Cup, won by South Africa, "we had to actually kick some people out because the fire marshal came by," Walker says. "It was an absolute party." Cricket, too: The 2007 World Cup final packed the place and showed off L.A.'s Sri Lankan community, which watched its team lose to Australia.

"Soccer is bigger than both those sports in America, so I'm expecting it will be bigger in here," McLean says. "People from Argentina to Japan, [from] all around the world."

Saturday's U.S.-England game, which kicks off at 11:30 a.m., might draw the most passionate crowd. "That will be the biggest day," McLean says. "And obviously the [July 11] final -- we'll either have to sell tickets for that, or first-come, first-serve."

Those who do come can snack on South African specialties. The Springbok makes its own "boerewors" ("farmer's sausage") and "peri-peri," a hot sauce made from South African chiles served on buffalo wings. South African cuisine has Indian and Malay influences -- "We love our curries, our samosas," Walker says -- and Springbok serves "sostie," a sort of chicken kabob marinated in spicy apricot sauce.

Their hope is South Africa's team, widely considered the weakest side in the tournament, can pull off an upset or two. Getting to the quarterfinals, McLean says, "would be like winning the World Cup."

"I don't expect anything out of them, you know what I mean?" Walker says. "But I'll back them 100 percent. And I think we might see some surprises. I honestly think South Africa has a chance of beating Mexico. In fact, I'm saying it's going to be 3-2. You know there's always that home-field advantage, and these guys are going to put in everything. It'll be awesome.

"C'mon, I can't expect them to win the World Cup. Not going to happen. But it's not just about South Africa for me. I would be really happy to see any African nation in the semis. Or, God forbid, the finale. I think that would be an awesome thing for soccer."

Other African teams in the field: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

The Springbok's partners witnessed the changes, good and bad -- and the impact they had on the country, its international standing and how it was and is perceived across the globe -- since the end of Apartheid.

Walker says he has been questioned before about South Africa's former policies, "and I've had people make assumptions, like I'm KKK or whatever. But that's few and far between. ...

"There definitely has been a much more positive perception of South Africa, in general. Although there's still plenty of problems. There's tons of violence. They've got a massive HIV/AIDS issue. And I think a lot of people living in poverty are frustrated with the government. ... It's going to take generations [for change to be completed]. That's the truth."

A global embargo and turmoil in the country and at its borders led South African president F.W. de Klerk, who took over from Apartheid advocate P.W. Botha in 1989, to start disassembling Apartheid laws in the early 1990s, leading to free elections that gave power to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress party in 1994.

"It was a change [from Apartheid]," says McLean, who tries to visit home as often as possible. "That's the way you've been brought up, but it is what it is, and you've got to live with it. You can't fight against it. It was a wrong thing. Apartheid was wrong, and, you know, the new South Africa has come out. … We could play international rugby -- that's what we loved most about it. We played sport all our lives, but we couldn't participate in cricket, we couldn't go and play in England, couldn't go to Australia. Once that ban was dropped, the pull wasn't so bad to swallow."

Walker played in a racially diverse soccer club, Rygersdal FC, and says there "were other races at my school, but it was definitely segregated." Nettman, who is from Durban, says he rarely had contact with other races until he was in the military. "We went to all-white schools, we lived in all-white neighborhoods. We didn't get mixed together, other than you have your friends you go to the beach with or meet at the beach."

There was a lot of resistance to ending Apartheid among the whites, especially Afrikaaners.

"I think there was just a lot of propaganda going on," says Walker, whose father's office in Atlanta was a polling station for the region's South Africans in the 1994 election. "A lot of fear, and a lot of fear of the unknown on the part of the white people.

Some of that fear was not misplaced. Poverty, corruption and crime are rampant, especially in the black townships.

Because so much of today's turmoil is still couched as a black/white issue, the complexity of the problems and potential solutions are often ignored. South Africa, Walker notes, is a melting pot, with many races and cultures, with Africa's largest white, Indian and mixed-race populations, and with 11 official languages: Afrikaans is the most spoken among whites and "Coloureds," or multi-racial; English is only the fifth-most common home language. Nettman says he learned Afrikaans and Zulu in school.

"South Africa is much more diverse than people realize," Walker says. "There's not just black and white. There's lots of different tribes and cultures. And sometimes it seems everybody disagrees. There are feuds that have been going on for hundreds of years."

Sport, they agree, has had the greatest role in uniting the races and cultures of South Africa.

"Sport is fantastic for these countries," Walker says. "The Rugby World Cup [in 1995, depicted in 'Invictus'] was a great unifying force. And I see the soccer World Cup being the same thing, bringing the people together.

Says McLean: "Sport is a great way to integrate people. I wish everyone would just play sport and politics would be [banned]."

The impact of the World Cup on South Africa, on all of Africa, could be massive. The Springbok's partners expect it to greatly benefit the massive tourism industry, and there is hope the spotlight that will shine the next month will change the way the world sees the country and the continent.

"That's why it's imperative that we get everything right," McLean says. "We've got to make sure there's enough transport, that there's enough police. We can't allow any football hooligans. There's got to be enough accommodations. So let's hope we've had enough time to prepare. Just the logistics of everything, you know? That's my big fear. But I'm sure they've had enough time to get it all right."

Says Walker: "This is about more than South Africa. It's about Africa, and seeing these events happen in Africa, it can just really shine a light on Africa, which kind of gets looked over all the time."

Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.