Saturday’s draw for the Fifa Confederations Cup has cast a spotlight on South Africa’s preparations for the World Cup, as organisers reassure naysayers that everything is on track.

“The Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 will be a mouth-watering appetiser for the main event in 2010,” said Irvin Khoza, chairman of the local organising committee for the event.

Worries about the Confed Cup arose in July when the city of Port Elizabeth was stripped of the right to stage matches because the new stadium under construction there would be not finished on time.

But Khoza said in an email that the 10 grounds for the World Cup, to be held in nine cities, would be completed by December 2009.

“Our stadiums are no longer just artist impressions to be admired on paper, they are rapidly being brought to life for all to see and admire,” he said.

Despite concerns about cost overruns – the stadium in Cape Town reportedly will cost 50 percent more than budgeted – few doubt that the facilities will be ready for the World Cup, the first held in Africa.

The government hopes the new stadia will become landmarks, with giant giraffes at Nelpruit’s Mbombela stadium or the towering steel arches with cable cars over the pitches in Cape Town and Durban.

“It is only an act of God that can move this World Cup away from South Africa,” local organising committee chief Danny Jordaan told parliament’s sports committee on Wednesday.

In addition to South Africa’s construction budget, Fifa has an operational budget of 34.5 million for the Confed Cup and more than one billion dollars for the World Cup, spokeswoman Delia Fischer told AFP.

The local organising committee has a budget of 423 million dollars, she said.

But critics contend that the real problems lie not in the venues, but in the rest of the country, which is grappling to contain a gruesome crime rate and to deal with an energy shortage that caused widespread blackouts in January.

In a country where an average of about 50 people meet violent deaths every day, security officials have promised to tackle crime with a “firm and uncompromising” stance.

French police are helping train South African forces in non-lethal tactics against unruly crowds.

Police have also received two Robinson R44 Raven helicopters – equipped with modern gear such as thermal imaging – to aid crime fighters during the World Cup.

The state power firm Eskom is moving to expand its capacity, though new stations could take years to come on line. In the meantime, the company is also reportedly in talks with Mozambique to buy additional power to ensure an adequate supply during the World Cup.

The state telecom firm Telkom is also busy upgrading its national network that will connect all 10 grounds with high-speed Internet.

South Africa is also embarking on an ambitious scheme to overhaul its public transport, building its first metro line around Johannesburg and improving bus services and roads.

But some South Africans fear that the improvements may not serve them once the games end.

Sipho Ngwenya, 42, drives one of the legions of mini-buses that carry people around Johannesburg. He worries that South Africa will eliminate vehicles like his in favour of modern bus lines.

“We hear that government will phase out our buses from the cities and replace them with theirs. This will definitely spell doom for us and our families,” Ngwenya said.

The worries haven’t clouded the public enthusiasm for the events. Nearly 40,000 South Africans applied to volunteer at the Confed Cup, 10 times the number needed.

DATED: 21st November 2008