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World Cup: Red carpet treatment of foreigners a nice new perk in South Africa

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Claudio Cruz/AP

(Read caption) South Africans people react as they watch the World Cup soccer match between South Africa and France in a large screen in Nelspruit, South Africa, June 22.

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I’m at the counter of my favorite gas station, paying for a stack of newspapers and a cappuccino, and the cashier looks at me and says, “What media organization do you belong to?”

It’s an interesting question, given that I’m not wearing my News Media Uniform; no green visor and red-wax pencil tucked behind my ear. How does this guy know I work for news media organization?

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I tell him that I work for the Monitor, and he promptly hands me a free coffee mug for a local business newspaper and a nice little yellow nylon sack with the logo of the gas station.

It’s good to be a foreigner in South Africa these days, or at least a foreigner of a certain type. South African waiters and service-station attendants are always friendly, of course, but it’s clear that an entire nation has been given a list of talking points.

1. Smile at the foreigner.

2. Ask him where he is from and whether he has had a pleasant time at the World Cup.

3. Once you know where the foreigner is from, look quickly at the list taped to the counter and thank him in his own language.

4. When in doubt, give him something for free. We want foreigners to come back.

It’s a little disconcerting, of course, to be singled out as a foreigner. I have lived in South Africa for almost four years, and I rather thought that I was starting to blend in. I know, for instance, how to say thank you in isiZulu, Setswana, and even Afrikaans. But now, the arrival of 300,000 foreigners to watch the World Cup has blown my cover.

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Yet I understand the phenomenon. South Africa is a desperately poor country dressed up as a middle-income country. Its poor live in shacks; its rich live in mansions behind 10-foot walls and electric fencing. To correct this imbalance requires creating jobs, hundreds of thousands of jobs, in order to absorb the millions of school graduates entering the job market every year. A country like South Africa – with game parks and beaches and vineyards – could do worse than build up its tourism industry.

But what about those of us foreigners who will stay behind when the tourists leave? For a time, it means we will get a little more attention than we are used to.

Later that day, I was standing in a supermarket staring at a sign above the aisle. The sign is in Afrikaans, so it takes longer to find out which aisle has cereal, and which aisle has spices, and so on.

Within seconds, a clerk comes to my rescue. “How can I help you?” he asks, and quickly directs me in my path.

My goodness, yes, I think I’ll stay here in South Africa.

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