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Violence and tension come at worst time for World Cup

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SAFRICA-TERREBLANCHE/World Cup organisers probably dreamed of a placid, trouble-free final countdown to the soccer spectacular, with all the fears about crime, bad transport and accommodation shortages pushed to the background for Africa’s biggest sports extravaganza. Sadly for them, they are getting the opposite. It would be difficult to conjure up a more unfortunate set of events less than 60 days before the tournament. Simmering racial tensions have burst into the open because of the murder of white supremacist Eugene Terre’blanche and the diatribes of Julius Malema, leader of the youth wing of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, who refuses to pipe down despite tough reprimands from President Jacob Zuma and other party officials. Even before what must be looking to hapless officials like a perfect storm, scenes had become commonplace of township residents rioting around South Africa against lack of improvements in their lives some 16 years after the end of apartheid.
To add to the torture for World Cup officials while the spotlight is fixed on South Africa, municipal workers have declared an indefinite strike over wages, threatening the chaotic scenes seen last year when rubbish was strewn over the streets. South Africa’s biggest labour federation has threatened strikes during the tournament to protest against big hikes in power prices.
All of this illustrates the point that countries or cities staging major world events suddenly become fixed in an often uncomfortable glare of world attention as the big day approaches. But even by these standards, South Africa looks unfortunate. World Cup officials, led by chief organiser Danny Jordaan, have spent literally years fending off suggestions that soccer fans will be in mortal danger in South Africa, which has one of the globe’s highest rates of violent crime. Jordaan and others have repeated a familiar mantra– the country has staged 150 sports and other events since the end of apartheid with little problem, millions of tourists have enjoyed South Africa’s many attractions for years without major criminal attacks and protecting a finite event is a lot less complex than overcoming the national crime wave–especially since 40,000 police have been mobilised to do only that.

Nevertheless, many foreign fans and even visiting journalists are anxious about security and alarmist media reports have undoubtedly deterred some, especially it seems in Germany–hosts of the last event. What could be worse then, as the final countdown begins, than the events of the last week or so? Terre’blanche was hacked and bludgeoned to death on April 3 in a killing whose brutality seemed almost calculated to set off new anxiety about visiting South Africa, even though police believe it was a simple criminal, rather than racial, attack. Terre’blanche’s own fringe AWB party lost no time in telling foreign journalists that overseas fans would be in danger during the World Cup and most reports on the killing mentioned the tournament’s approach. The most extreme reaction came from the U.K. tabloid the Daily Star which said English fans risked a “machete race war” –sparking howls of protest in South Africa.
All of this has been made a lot worse by Malema, a firebrand demagogue who had hitherto been apparently used by some of the ANC to hit at leftwingers in the party and to mobilise the youth vote, but who now seems to have got out of control. Terre’blanche’s supporters say that Malema’s insistence on reviving an apartheid-era song “Kill the Boer” — which has now been banned by the courts –was the direct cause of the murder. Zuma said on Sunday, in an unusually strong reprimand, that Malema’s comments and actions, including calling a BBC journalist a bastard and throwing him out of a press conference, were alien to the ruling party. Malema remained defiant despite the rebuke.

Can things get any worse? Well the impact of even these events is debatable. The timing is undoubtedly deeply unfortunate, but reports that foreign fans are newly anxious about violence are matched by others saying they remain unmoved. One of the more surprising statistics in FIFA’s latest bulletin on ticket sales is that Americans–usually sensitive to reports about overseas danger spots– are the biggest foreign buyers of tickets and have grabbed nearly 120,000 of the 2.2 million seats sold, way above the 67,000 purchased in Britain. Jordaan, clearly deeply frustrated by repeated questioning about security, looked bemused last week when he was besieged by questions about Terre’blanche and Malema at a press conference. He told journalists the murder was a simple criminal act that had no relevance to the World Cup. “I don’t think you must completely misconstrue it in this manner, it is just not correct,” he said. Let’s hope he is right. There seems more chance that he is than the contrary. Negative reporting has abounded about the World Cup with European journalists, particularly in Britain, queuing up to say nothing would be ready on time and the competition would be chaotic. As Jordaan points out, they have already been wrong about many things. The stadiums have been finished well ahead of time and many of them are stunning. Whatever happens, the stakes are high. A successful World Cup will boost the image not just of this country but of Africa as a whole, bringing more investment and more tourists. Failure would have an equally damaging effect.

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