Piet Skosana stands on a concrete pylon, high in the air. The 48-year-old South African construction worker might seem exotic, inscrutable even, with the clucks of his Xhosa language and his stories of tribal initiation in the bush and his memories of apartheid.

But, truth is, he wants what anyone with a family wants: a better home, education for his children, three squares for his table. He loves to coach soccer, and he loves to watch his grandson sleep. He'd like to buy a ticket someday for a game inside this stadium that he's helping to build, but deep down he knows that is only slightly more likely than his owning a Ferrari. Much of his Friday paycheck is gone by Monday, spent almost entirely on food. When he looks out from the pylon at the city of Cape Town before him, he cannot see Nyanga, the ghetto where he lives. Its corrugated tin shacks and dirt streets are blocked by the wealth of Table Mountain, with so many fine Cape Dutch mansions tucked into its sides. From his elevated view, Cape Town is a postcard. Big freighters push into port beneath towering blue skies. Others stay offshore, anchored by thigh-size chains, waiting on provisions and fuel, as ships have done here at the tip of Africa for centuries. But none of it is what holds Skosana's attention.

There it is, seven miles away, low in the water, like a galleon returning from the New World: Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail. High above the construction site of Green Point Stadium, showpiece of soccer's 2010 World Cup, the clanging of the iron rebar and swinging steel beams fades away. And every time he sees the island, Skosana stops for a moment to think about where his people have been.

The city that spreads in front of Skosana has been transformed in the 18 years since Mandela was released. Evidence is everywhere: Blacks eat at beachfront cafés in luxe Clifton; whites give each other the traditional African handshake; mixed-race couples browse a local electronics store. On a continent that has been mostly unable to outrun the legacy of colonialism, South Africa has offered a different option. A country can change without civil war. A black-run government can attract investment.

The latest step in the nation's transformation from apartheid to democracy is the upcoming World Cup, the first to be hosted by Africa, and dreams of the 2020 Olympic Games, which would also be an African first. Some even have a new name for this old city. They call it Hope Town.

That's one view, anyway. There is another, less optimistic one. And the debate between the two—continued rise vs. familiar meltdown—plays like a soap opera in the nation's headlines. As the sun rises higher on a 90° February day, Skosana and some other union leaders take a break. As they walk off the job site, they pass a bustling McDonald's. Their brightly colored coveralls are designed to mimic soccer jerseys. They take cover beneath the branches of a tree and remove their hard hats. When they speak, they do not speak of hope; they speak of fear, of a pessimism descending on the nation. The fate of Mandela's vision will likely be settled in the next decade, and the people of South Africa believe that the World Cup is the final word on that future.

It would be funny if it weren't true. The stakes seem overly dramatic to an outsider, especially someone from America, where sporting events are vehicles for selling cheeseburgers, motor oil and estate planning. A successful World Cup will foretell a long-lasting African democracy? A failed World Cup, civil war? That's absurd, right? But in harbor bars and airport customs lines and township shebeens, many Capetonians talk of the event as if it were a $550 million tarot card. "We are expecting 2010 to save South Africa," Skosana says. What others might frame as "Can they pull it off?" South Africans frame as nothing less than "Can we survive?"

You can find clues to the answer to either question in the past. The Xhosa believe that departed ancestors continue to play a role in their daily lives and that every thought and action trace back to a first paramount chief. In the creation myth of modern South Africa, the paramount chief is Mandela. He is the reason a sporting event is so important. Follow Skosana's eyes as he stares across Table Bay at Robben Island. Two blue boats float in the harbor, the same boats that carried men like Mandela to the prison. They run their route to this day. Apartheid couldn't outlive the seaworthiness of two ragged old ships.

Just beyond the Robben Island checkpoint is a rock-strewn field, with rusted, collapsing rugby poles and a view of the ocean. But this is not the ocean of beach vacations. Waves swell from gunpowder seas, pummeling the boulders that guard the shore. At this place, in the early 1960s, tensions ran high among the political prisoners. Rival inmate factions—Mandela's African National Congress, the Pan-African Congress of Robert Sobukwe, the Communist Party and other splinter groups—all competed in a cliquish environment for members and prestige. Then a few men, including convicted saboteur Sedick Isaacs, founded a soccer league. "We had to form some kind of community," Isaacs says. "Sports was the way."

Goals were fashioned from driftwood and a discarded fishing net. Teams had names like Vultures, Lice and Bush Bugs, and schedules were posted midweek in the cell blocks. If you missed one of the Saturday games, jailhouse reporters would re-create the action the next morning before chapel. There were tattered FIFA rule books, board meetings, minutes of those meetings and a body of mediators that heard formal protests. As the seasons passed, Isaacs noticed a change. Teams no longer were chosen along party lines. The island had come together. And watching from his cell until guards completed a wall that was built to blind him was prisoner 466/64, Nelson Mandela. He would never forget the view: men, running free, political divisions set aside.

Almost three decades passed. His hair grew gray, his back stooped. Finally, in 1990, Mandela was let out. He crusaded to end apartheid. He was feted by movie stars. And four years after leaving Robben Island, Mandela was chosen to be South Africa's president. Almost immediately, he began to woo the keepers of major international sporting events, and many succumbed to his charms. The Cricket World Cup. Golf's President's Cup. Soccer's Africa Cup of Nations. His reasons were clear: Apartheid had been dissolved, but South Africans still needed to be united. Mandela had seen sports bring enemies together before. His new government needed to invest in infrastructure, sure, but successfully hosting these kinds of events would prove that his country could operate in the first world.

The Rugby World Cup arrived in 1995. Most black South Africans hated their national team, the Springboks. They were a longtime symbol of separatist cruelty, with captains chosen by the same secret society that handpicked racist leaders. To many, the Springboks were a past that had to be left behind. Mandela had other ideas. At the beginning of the tournament, he wore a Springboks hat and asked all South Africans to cheer for their team.

The underdog Boks fought their way to the final, and on the morning of the game, captain Francois Pienaar led the team on a run through the streets of Sandton, a Johannesburg suburb. Soon, four young black newsboys were running alongside. What happened next gives Pienaar chills all these years later and gives him hope during troubled times. The kids called out the once-reviled players' names and chanted a new word, spoken in the native Xhosa, a word that hadn't even existed before this team and this tournament. AmaBokoboko! AmaBokoboko! The players understood and were humbled. The children were shouting "Springboks!"—blacks honoring the symbol of their former oppressors. It was a miracle.

As the members of the team dressed for the final match, they looked up to find Mandela standing in the locker room. He'd come to offer the support of all of South Africa. Some of the players, including some who'd grown up believing Mandela was a terrorist, were overcome with emotion. During the national anthem, Pienaar bit his lip so hard that blood trickled down his chin. He did not want to cry. And when the locals won, Pienaar looked up to see Mandela walking onto the field in a Springboks jersey—Pienaar's Springboks jersey. As the president hugged the player, the 65,000 mostly white fans did what actually had been a crime just a few years before: They spoke Mandela's name in public. Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son! Later, people told of seeing hard-line apartheiders standing in front of their televisions and chanting along with the crowd.

A nation had been born.

That tournament is why Skosana finds himself covered in dust these days, rushing to finish a state-of-the-art stadium. But it was 13 years ago, and if you ask some people, everything has gone to hell since.

David Polovin, a local lawyer, considers that present—and the future—over a cappuccino. Sitting in a café along Beach Road, a few yards from the sea, he looks across the street at the rising stadium. It takes half of Skosana's $11 daily salary to buy a coffee here. This is Polovin's neighborhood, Green Point. The construction cranes are all that is clearly visible today in the dense fog that's settled over Cape Town. A year ago, Polovin led Green Point's residents, upset at the prospect of losing green space, in a fight to stop the stadium. But after hearing local politicians make their case, he came to understand the importance of the building and of the World Cup. His country, Polovin believes, is at the brink of a historic do-over, a chance to go back to that moment in 1995 when everything seemed possible. But he also understands just how close African nations live to implosion. As he sips his drink, more than 2,600 miles to the north, postelection violence tears apart Kenya, usually considered one of the continent's most stable countries. "South Africa is on a very precarious path," Polovin says. "We're on that knife's edge. It's quite correct to regard what happened in Kenya as an appropriate indicator of what could happen here. I'd like to tell you it couldn't, but I believe South Africa can still go the wrong way."

There are ominous warning signs. Planned power outages plague the country. And poor management and a lack of qualified engineers make it unlikely that the national power company, Eskom, will be able to fix the lights before 2010. In addition, Jacob Zuma, who became head of the ruling ANC party in December, is the leading candidate to become South Africa's next president, in 2009. His populist message—punctuated by the campaign song "Bring Me My Machine Gun"—appeals to men of lesser means who feel that the current leaders have left them behind. But it scares many Africa-watchers. So does the fact that Zuma was acquitted in 2006 of raping an HIV-positive girl. (He calls the sex consensual and says he took a shower afterward to make sure he didn't get the disease.) And the fact that, even though violent crime is out of control, one of Zuma's first acts as ANC boss was to fold the country's only effective crime-fighting unit, the independent Scorpions, into the regular police force. Their offense? Putting together a corruption case against Zuma that might still keep him from office.

Every morning, the newspapers offer another nail for the coffin. There are stories about racial tensions dividing the cricket union and infighting among local World Cup officials. Some reports have hinted at a secret FIFA plan to move the Cup should South Africa deteriorate further. Fierce denials haven't curbed the worry. "It would kill this country," says Rian Malan, an influential South African writer. "We'd never recover. You guys might think it's just a soccer game. It's much more than that."

Hosting the World Cup isn't just an expensive way to lift this nation's morale. South Africans expect the tournament to put the country on solid financial footing. But author Neil deMause, who wrote a book that analyzed the benefits of sports and stadiums on a region's citizens, is dubious. "I think it's a ridiculous strategy," he says. "They're trying to follow through on these promises to improve life for the majority of people, but it's a tough line to walk. I can't think of any real good examples in which something like the World Cup or the Olympics has enabled countries to build stuff they needed."

So why is Piet Skosana building a first-world stadium? For the money, yes, but also because to build it is a vote of optimism in a continent that often falls prey to a self-fulfilling pessimism. Because to not build it is to admit defeat. It is a symbol South Africans need, even men like Danny Jordaan, CEO of the 2010 Organizing Committee.

Jordaan finds himself constantly cutting through the despair, even inside his own office. Last month, he walked into a large ballroom filled with his most important employees—black, white, mixed—and relayed a simple message. "I won't talk about what's going on in the country," he said. "You all know. Eskom, Scorpions or parliament. It seems we're slipping into a negative slide."

The room was quiet. Jordaan then fiddled with his laptop, which was plugged into a projector. A television commercial for the World Cup played on the screen. In it, a man complains in an airport that South Africa has no shot at pulling off a complicated international event. But he is rebuked by one person, and the crowd around him erupts. At the end, two words appear on the screen: Start imagining.

When the video finished, those in the audience clapped along with the people on the screen. They believe the message: South Africa will pull off this event, it will complete four other stadiums around the country, it will show everyone that Africa can make things work. They also know that there will be work to be done afterward, more challenges, more hurdles.

Jordaan scanned the room. The employees looking back at him were the future of South Africa, many of them part of the first generation to live their entire adult lives not subject to apartheid. Their South Africa has different obstacles. "This World Cup has always been part of building hope," Jordaan told them. "In this place we find ourselves, it means your responsibility is so much greater."

That, then, is the state of the nation. Twenty-seven months from the first match, Piet Skosana stands underneath the trees shading the hill above his township's soccer field. A marijuana plant grows wild by his feet. He's back in Nyanga. The postapartheid government promised to change life in places like this, promised acceptable housing and basic services. Those promises haven't been kept.

Today, rain is falling, and the soccer crowd is thin. Some days, when the weather is nice, there are thousands of people at what locals call Nyanga Stadium, a few rugged pitches and some aging bleachers. It costs about 30 cents to get inside, and that buys you an entire day of soccer. At work, Skosana builds a stadium that will have a JumboTron and luxury suites, but that one isn't for him. That's not his Cape Town. This contradiction—the growing feeling of de facto apartheid between rich and poor—is ultimately the most dangerous ticking bomb in South Africa, more than crime, more than energy shortages. "We know where we come from," says Skosana's co-worker Gumla Herberp. "We know how difficult it was before. We're not trying to chase the whites away. We'd like to live with them, but what we're looking for is to be equal. The gap between us and them is huge. We wake up in the morning to work for them." If South Africa has a fault line, it is here. Some hope the World Cup will mend that tear; others believe it could pull it open.

Skosana thinks about dreams, and how he never really had any, and how he hopes his 11-year-old grandson might. Dreams cost money, though, and after decades of hard work, he has none. Skosana makes about $340 a month. He needs more. So do his fellow workers. They are talking about a strike, after asking for nearly $200 in performance bonuses a month. Management countered with an offer of $140 every three. Soon, a union vote could halt work at Green Point Stadium, and that could derail everything. One manager of the project says, "The room for error is zero."

Skosana leaves Nyanga Stadium when the soccer game is over and returns to his shack. It has two rooms, and at night, the rain on the tin ceiling sounds like the drums from his past. Airplanes returning from foreign capitals descend on final approach over his home, their turbines drowning out all other noise. Skosana has never been on an airplane.

He sits in the small, immaculate living room, the wafting stench of outdoor plumbing masked by the smell of burning ganja from a few doors down. It's been a long week, and he has to get up at 5 to do it all again.