|South Africa begins the most important test of its ability to host the 2010 World Cup, exactly one year away, as the games for the curtain-raiser Confederations Cup kick off on Sunday.
The two-week competition will test whether the country can deliver on its World Cup goals of delivering sparkling new stadiums, beefed-up security, an overhaul of the transport system and a big new supply of accommodation.
The government is banking on the games to transform the image of the country and the continent, and is spending about R500 billion to modernise its infrastructure, said Rich Mkhondo, spokesman for the local organising committee.
He said four stadiums had already been upgraded to host the Confederations Cup. The first of the new stadiums was completed this week and five others are slated to open by December.
A series of court disputes, labour strikes and tribal land battles raised fears that the construction won’t be ready when the World Cup began on June 11, 2010, but those concerns have subsided.
Mkhondo said: “We are confident with the progress made so far. Right now we are nine months ahead of where Japan and Korea were in 2004, and six months ahead compared to Germany in 2006.”
Among the most striking, Durban’s new stadium will feature a 106-metre arc over the field that will include a cable car for views of the field below.
With about 50 people killed every day, South Africa is one of the world’s most violent places.
FIFA has repeatedly sought to ease concerns over crime, pointing to South Africa’s successful hosting of other major sports events, including the Indian Premier League cricket that wrapped up in May.
The government has in recent months taken a tougher tone on crime, keenly aware that an incident-free tournament would boost South Africa’s image abroad, while any major violence would heighten fears about safety.
World Cup chief security officer Linda Mti said: “More than 10 000 police officers will be available to ensure the safety of visitors during the World Cup.
“Our police services are working closely with international security agencies such as Interpol and share security issues on daily basis.”
The police ministry has raised the possibility of bringing in soldiers help with some police work jobs, including emergency services.
Despite a tourism boom over the past decade, organisers have scrambled to overcome a shortage of accommodation for travellers in South Africa.
In 2008 FIFA decided to accredit non-hotel establishments to house some of the 450 000 foreign visitors expected to attend the games.
Guest houses, private lodges and backpacker hostels will add to the country’s 100 000 graded rooms.
FIFA has also contracted rooms in neighbouring countries, which tourism officials say is aimed at spreading the financial benefits of the games beyond South Africa’s borders.
A total of about 4 000 rooms have been secured outside the country, with 3 200 on the island of Mauritius, famous for its exotic beaches but a four-and-a-half hour flight away.
“Mauritius is one of the leading tourist destinations in the region. We hope that the World Cup will further promote that position,” Mkhondo said.
South Africa has been overhauling its transportation system over the last three years, widening highways, creating a new urban bus network and giving its airports a facelift.
The first segment of a light rail network to link Johannesburg’s international airport to the Sandton business area is expected to be running in 2010, but possibly not in time for the games.
The multi-billion-rand Gautrain project which began in September 2006 is the country’s flagship public transportation project, aimed at easing road congestion between Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.
But the Pretoria route will only be finished a year later.
Johannesburg’s Bus Rapid Transit system, meant to start running in June, has been stalled by rioting mini-bus drivers, who currently provide most of the city’s public transport, hoping to cash in on the games.
“Problems around the bus system are being resolved, construction is going ahead and we will be ready long before the start of the World Cup,” said Rehanna Moosajee, a Johannesburg city councillor.
South Africa hopes the transport overhaul will leave the nation transformed after the games, overcoming the inadequacies of the apartheid-era system which was designed to keep people apart. – AFP