STRANGE being a sports writer in London as we gear up to the World Cup in South Africa in June. You read all these stories about a country you know so well and think... how can these guys be writing that? How can they pretend to know what's going on, what's gone on? Where's their perspective? But you have no choice.
This week Martin Samuel - the best-paid sportswriter in England, and something of a heavyweight in my world (left, with yet another trophy for his writing) - wrote a piece in the heavily conservative Daily Mail talking about how dangerous the Rainbow Nation is, about how nobody would dare walk down the road to a restaurant. Oh, and he complained about the shanties on the way to the airport and had a go at "PC journalists" who held a different view.
He's a bright lad Martin, but he'd just joined 'let's knock Africa' brigade led by the snobbish private school types in London who dominate the media and push it towards the fascist fringes.
The BBC's Andrew Harding does little better in his scare-mongering piece, which includes a visit to Hillbrow in Johannesburg http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8479845.stm. Still, at least there's a positive closing sequence. But all this talk of flak jackets and videos of violence. What about London, with the Olympics coming up in two years? No stabbings in our capital? Couldn't foreign journalists do the same kind of muck raking.
Then there's Uli Hoeness, the arrogant German saying he never liked the idea of a World Cup in South Africa. How about flying him out there Rich? Let me take him around the country, see the stadia, witness the miracle?
I'm fuming. I've just spent six weeks in South Africa covering the absorbing Test series from which England escaped with a highly-fortunate draw. Martin had been here a week. I had a long chat to him while we watched England warm up for the last Test at the Wanderers. Didn't seem right or fair to produce a piece like that.
I'd told him my experiences. Centurion, Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg... I walked everywhere, didn't hire a car. Wandered along the beach front in Durban, celebrated with the masses on Long Street as the New Year dawned in Cape Town, drank with old friends at the Radium Beer Hall in Orange Grove. Never a problem. The country improves every time I visit.
But the international media - apparently even the bright ones like Sammy - prefer to focus on the crime figures, African poverty, political corruption... even the tragic shootings in Cabinda, where Togo's team bus was attacked before the African Cup of Nations. But Cabinda, I keep telling everyone, is further from Johannesburg than Moscow to London. It's always been a troubled area.
I've been on 702, Sky News and opened lines of communication to Rich Mkhondo, my old university mate, at the World Cup communications office. Somebody has to redress the balance. Somebody with a knowledge of South Africa, a feeling for the country. But somebody offering enough detachment to come up with an objective view. And having an English accent helps too.
If you look at my blog, www.nealcollins.co.uk/blog, you'll see my arguments, my musings on the subject - and my visit to England's hidden training camp in Rustenburg with exclusive pictures. You may also read about where the other big European teams are staying - the German hotel in Erasmia has only just got around the building their training ground while the Italians will be preparing on a local high school pitch specially re-surfaced for their billionaire footballers. It's my way of helping fans find their feet when they get to South Africa in June.
And perhaps you'll find my first novel, A GAME APART, of use too. It's based largely on what I witnessed myself as a student, footballer and very junior sports journalist from 1979 to 1985.
But it takes us right up to date with current events, to the point when England are about to kick off against the USA at the Bafokeng Sports Palace on June 12.
Since leaving the country in something of a hurry during the Apartheid years, I have made numerous return visits to South Africa to cover the Lions rugby tour (1997), the cricket World Cup (2003) as well as a three-month England cricket tour (1999/2000) before the most recent Test series. My father still lives there and we visit, as a family, at least once a year, travelling widely and without fear other than when we come across big cats and rogue elephants in the game parks.
These frequent trips have, I hope, given me a special insight into a fascinating nation, so unique in Africa… and the world, when you consider how quickly it has changed.
In all my years resident there from 1970 to 1985, and on over two dozen subsequent visits, I never been mugged or car-jacked, or even rudely spoken to by a black man, though my university days were marked by constant conflict with the police, which reflects itself in the book I guess.
Some of my South Africa friends are outraged by it. One, my old head boy from school in Verwoerdburg (now Centurion) suggested I mentioned the betrayal of the Boers and said his wife couldn't finish the book, it was too vitriolic. But that's what journalists are isn't it? Vitriol is our merchandise.
And the events detailed in the book are largely factual, but condensed... names and places have been altered, some may feel they recognise themselves in certain of the characters, but in truth the characters are a compilation of the people I have met, the life I experienced. It's not just about football. It's about women, beaches, resettlement camps, brutality, national service. The whole gamut.
I judge nobody who lived in South Africa at that time, where so many were forced into certain roles by the incredible pressures of a violent, divisive society. A lot of the publicity surrounding the upcoming World Cup has been negative, with the focus on crime and corruption in South Africa since democracy arrived in 1994.
My perception is very different to that... I believe the country has changed massively for the better in 16 short years. I’ve waited all that time to let my memories loose, and the World Cup seems an appropriate time to produce a novel which will help people to remember exactly what the Rainbow Nation has been through in the last 20 years. My memories, my distortions in terms of time and emphasis, will annoy some, please others.
All I ask is that the reader recognizes this is how a young Englishman might have viewed the South Africa I grew up in. A strange but beautiful country riven by cruelty and mistrust and headed for a bloody revolution… until the release of a certain Nelson Mandela in 1990.
That South Africa is now in a position to bid for a major sports event, let alone host an operation of this scale, is little short of a miracle given what I lived through there. And that really is the point. For those who visit the country, for those who view it on a television screen, for those who read about it in the newspapers, I hope to offer some perspective.
Apartheid, like the Holocaust, should never be forgotten, swept under the carpet. Otherwise somebody will simply repeat the process. And that must never be allowed to happen.