South Africans enjoying downturn in crime

By Daniel Howden

It's a sunny afternoon in Soweto. A gaggle of gossiping ladies are perched on a wall within hailing distance of Nelson Mandela's former home.

The only thing that marks them out from the mix of locals and tourists wandering the length of Vilakazi St is their navy blue uniforms. The women are police officers from JMPD - the Johannesburg police. They're chatting because there's nothing else to do.

The hillside, overlooking the iconic township's chimneys, is alive with gentle hustlers and everyone is trying to get a slice of the World Cup action.

Yellow-bibbed parking attendants organise the traffic. Market stalls line the pavement offering everything from Bob Marley T-shirts to Steve Biko posters. Anything you ever wanted made out of beads is on sale.

Visitors are queuing to get into the imposing Mandela museum that turns out to be three rooms and some video clips. And a young boy is singing South Africa's haunting national anthem for small change.

What is completely absent is crime.

"The cops are here just to make the World Cup feel safe," says Sakhumzi Maqubela. "Nothing is going to happen to you here, you can go anywhere you like."

The 39-year-old is stretched out in the "Legacy Garden", a seating area outside his own pub, Sakhumzi's.

"People come here thinking South Africa is all shacks," he goes on. "They perceive Jo'burg as full of crime.

"There's still this perception of Soweto, people think you can't move around on your own without bodyguards. They think black people don't like them. It's not like that."

As the World Cup moves into the past, thoughts have turned to the legacy the mega-event leaves behind. There are a string of assessments to be made, from the economic impact to the effect on infrastructure.

The focus now shifts to whether the world's 25th largest economy can afford to maintain such extravagant spending. The official cost of hosting the tournament has been put at R43 billion ($8 billion) but unofficial estimates reach nearer R60 billion. That's over 5 per cent of GDP or equivalent to South Africa's spending on education.

The only direct income from the event was spending by foreign visitors - television and sponsorship money, match tickets and official merchandising goes to Fifa.

One million World Cup tourists came - double the expected number.

Provisional estimates of their spending are put at more than the R18 billion spent on stadiums. And Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan says the World Cup will add R38 billion to the country's economy this year alone.

That figure has not yet been backed up with more concrete appraisal, but taken with the rest of the numbers it does suggest South Africa may be able to afford the extra police who have been a feature of the event's success.

Those officers have one answer to the most intriguing question of all: what happened to all the crime?

Beforehand many observers said the event would be overwhelmed by a damaging crime wave. It wasn't.

Before the June 11 kick-off newsrooms worldwide had been braced for the first major crime event just as they were ready to report the first goal or the first sending off.

With a few days to go before the opener, three journalists in Johannesburg were robbed at their hotel and the incident made global headlines. Messages were passed among news professionals that could be roughly paraphrased as, "It's started already".

But it hadn't. By the start of July there was a single - non-fatal - shooting of a US backpacker in Johannesburg to add to the crime ledger. Sakhumzi's beguiling explanation that it was all a question of perception and that the reality of South Africa was always otherwise is tempting but only part of the answer.

The nation's high crime levels were not invented by tabloids. South Africa sits at the bottom of the crime rankings in the 133-nation World Competitiveness Survey. On an average day 100 people are raped, 50 are murdered and there are 550 violent assaults.

But this hasn't been an average month. Crime was down 90 per cent in central Cape Town. Only 172 cases were heard by the specially created World Cup courts, most of them trivial like the theft of England's underpants and the cannabis smoking of Paris Hilton's friend. Many of them involved petty crimes committed by foreign visitors, not South Africans.

The tournament's chief organiser, Danny Jordaan, felt emboldened enough to ask on the eve of the final if crime levels "had been perhaps the lowest of any World Cup".

Naturally enough the police have been keen to take credit. A terrifyingly straight-faced advert played on television and radio before the tournament kicked off listed the body armour, helicopters, assault rifles and fire hoses that had been bought for the World Cup before announcing that it was "celebrating Africa's humanity".

The force also cancelled all leave and deployed an extra 44,000 officers.

Police spokesman Colonel Eugene Opperman played with the idea that law breakers had stayed at home to watch the games but then quickly suggested: "With increased police activity everywhere, the criminals have been afraid to come out."

In fact, crime rates traditionally fall during mega-events such as the World Cup. When the finals were played in Germany four years ago crime in South Africa dropped then too.

Like many South Africans Jordaan has been left asking how this can become a lasting legacy.

"The police were efficient and the special courts were effective ... the question is how do we maintain this?

"It is a challenge to us all in South Africa to maintain that. We have had an image makeover for South Africa and the continent of Africa."

Dianne Kohler-Barnard, MP and shadow minister for police, said the Cup had removed the state's excuses for not delivering on law and order.

"Everyone has been feeling increasingly safe and it's down to high visibility policing, which is supposed to be a permanent priority but is often not delivered upon," she said. "From [today] these changes could disappear. But we've tasted what it's like and we don't want to give it up."

The Democratic Alliance MP said high-visibility police and the additional forces needed to maintain this had to become standard policy.

She accused the Government of appalling waste and corruption and said stopping this would create the budget for better policing.

South Africa has about 300,000 private security employees, an industry that drains £450 million ($952 million) a year that could be spent elsewhere.

"If this is what it takes to keep South Africans safe then this is what we must deliver. And if that means less submarines and tanks and toys for the military boys then so be it. Otherwise we're saying it's only important to keep tourists safe."

Shooting for goal

* Cost of hosting the World Cup: $8-$11 billion

* 1 million cup tourists

* $3-$7 billion revenue estimates

* Extra officers deployed: 44,000

- INDEPENDENT

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