South Africa’s fearsome record for robbery, murder and rape may be the single biggest challenge facing organisers of next year’s soccer World Cup.

With one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, South Africa needs not only to protect the fans when they arrive but convince them it is safe to make the trip in the first place. About 50 people are murdered a day — more than the United States, which has six times South Africa’s 50-million population. There were officially 36 190 rapes in 2007 and 2008 and 14 201 car hijackings, but many crimes go unreported.

Organisers have dismissed the fears, pointing to South Africa’s good record in protecting increasing numbers of foreign tourists, its staging of many successful international events and a huge police effort to safeguard the event.

Police strategy will be based on techniques honed during the 2002 World Earth Summit, which involve saturating areas including hotels, stadiums and transit routes with at least 41 000 specially deployed officers.

“We are preparing ourselves for a worst-case scenario or any eventuality … although we have the framework in place, we must deal with issues as they present themselves,” said police Senior Superintendent Vish Naidoo who leads the 2010 team.

The government is spending R1,3-billion ($162-million) on the effort, which includes new helicopters, surveillance equipment — including unmanned drones — vehicles and body armour.

About 700 officers will patrol every stadium in addition to an army of private security guards, Naidoo said.

But crime statistics, albeit improving slowly, leave questions about what may happen outside the venues, if visitors stray away from protected areas.

A security consultant working with the organisers, who asked not to be named, said opportunistic local criminals were unlikely to target well protected areas but look for weaknesses outside the security cordon.

Organisers warn that visitors must be vigilant despite the police effort.

“We ask people to be on the lookout for anything … we are not going to guard people in their cars and in their rooms, but our police officers will be present to help,” said Rich Mkhondo, spokesperson for the local organising committee.

Razor wire
Many South Africans remain sceptical, complaining that police are often too slow to respond to the existing crime wave.

In the big cities where crime is rife, the presence of private security companies is far more evident than that of the police. Homes are surrounded by a daunting array of razor and electric wire and protected by heavily armed private response units.

“We are wishing on the stars when we say that we are ready … we have adequate police, but they are too lenient and take bribes,” said 20-year-old student Nadira Abdul-Rahim.

Crime is recognised as one of South Africa’s most urgent problems and new President Jacob Zuma has vowed to toughen both the police and judicial systems.

Clearly a special effort will be required during 2010 if South Africa’s reputation is not to be irrevocably tarnished. The presence of comparatively well-heeled foreign fans could be seen as a golden opportunity for criminal gangs. “When you are poor, have lost your job and have no money to feed your kid, no wonder you get angry seeing tourists in flashy cars and spending what seems a fortune simply to celebrate a soccer team,” said taxi driver Siyabonga Zimu.

Infrastructure spending
But others believe the huge infrastructure spending for the World Cup will give Africa’s biggest economy a welcome boost as it suffers its first recession for nearly two decades and address some of the stark inequalities between rich and poor that stoke the crime problem.

“It’s going to create a lot of jobs, and even the youngsters can get out of crime and do sports,” said Sithembiso Malungisa, a 25-year-old volunteer and police reservist from Cape Town.

World Cup organisers have launched marketing campaigns overseas to lure visitors and counter crime fears. Signs so far are that the fans are not deterred.

There were about 1,8-million applications for the first 753 000 tickets offered for sale earlier this year.

“The final game is 3 000% oversubscribed, 26 out of the 64 games are sold out … let the games begin,” Mkhondo said.

South Africa’s image enjoyed a welcome and unexpected boost in April when the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket tournament was moved successfully here because of security fears around the prolonged Indian election.

Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the organising committee, has rejected fears about crime, pointing out that his country has held more than 140 events, including a cricket and rugby World Cup, since the end of apartheid in 1994.

“There hasn’t been much bad press or terrorist acts that would raise eyebrows or deter foreigners from coming in … and for any real fans location and political instability do not make much of a difference,” said Kanishka Thakur, an Indian fan living in the United States who plans to come next year. – Reuters

PUBLICATION: Mail & Guardian Online
DATED: 9th June 2009