South Africans want a crime-free World Cup to become everyday life

It is not just visitors who were pleasantly surprised – South Africans themselves no longer fear each other. Daniel Howden reports

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 Street 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.

Last night, the country was overjoyed to see Madiba step out before the final and greet fans, driving across the field of play in a golf cart with his wife, Graca. But in the days leading up to the grand conclusion, the national hero's presence has not been a prerequisite for bustling activity and excitement. On that sunny Soweto afternoon, the hillside which overlooks 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. He's feeling pretty good about the World Cup after seeing trade rise from 90 covers a day to nearer 1,000 a day over the last month. "People come here thinking South Africa is all shacks," he goes on. "They perceive Joburg as full of crime." And this is not limited to foreigners: according to Mr Maqubela, white South Africans are terrified of his township. "There's still this perception of Soweto, people think you can't move around on your own without bodyguards. They think that black people don't like them... It's not like that, this is a cultured place."

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 R43bn (£3.7bn) but unofficial estimates reach nearer R60bn. 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. There have been one million World Cup tourists, which was double the expected number. Provisional estimates of their spending are put at more than the R18bn spent on stadiums. And according to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, the World Cup will add R38bn 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 tournament's success.

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

Ahead of the finals many observers warned that the event would be overwhelmed by a damaging crime wave. It wasn't.

Before the 11 June 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 beginning of July there was a single – non-fatal – shooting of a US backpacker in Johannesburg to add to the crime ledger.

Mr 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. High crime levels in South Africa were not invented by British tabloids. The country sits at the bottom of the crime rankings in the 133-nation World Competitiveness Survey. On an average day 100 people are raped, 50 people 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 additional 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 said that the root of the success lay elsewhere: "With increased police activity everywhere, the criminals have been afraid to come out."

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

Like many South Africans Mr 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 make-over for South Africa and the continent of Africa."

Dianne Kohler-Barnard, MP and shadow minister for police, said that the World Cup had gotten rid of 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.

"From Monday 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 that 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 that stopping this would create the budget for better policing. There are some 300,000 private security employees working in South Africa, an industry that drains £450m 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." Whether it was an increased sense of national unity, the seduction of soccer or the power of high visibility policing, the temporary truce has left some unusual encounters in its wake.

At his Soweto pub Mr Sakhumzi claims to have barely seen a goal from the month of matches. Instead, his highlights reel is made up of seeing unfamiliar faces staying late in the famous township and feeling safe doing it. Seeing local whites here and enjoying themselves after the evening games made me feel like we should have done this a long time ago," he says. "People want to be unified and this is how relationships are created."

Mark Gevisser, journalist and author: The tournament has given us a sense of what's possible

The World Cup has presented a sense of the society we all believed we were bringing into being in 1994. It also offers a useful corrective for the image of South Africa in the last few years and gives the world and ourselves a kind of sense of what's possible rather than what actually is. It shows that the state can deliver and therefore provides some kind of benchmark for what can be expected of the state. There are huge problems here, both in terms of national identity and the gap between rich and poor. It would be deluded to think that a month-long carnival, however good, could solve these two problems. But the World Cup carries a lot of redemptive weight. When you are participating in the carnival you could think that this is the great new South Africa – mixed racially. You see South Africans reclaiming public space, but going to games was out of the reach of the poor. I had that thrill of cosmopolitanism, so did people in Soweto, but in Phokeng? I hadn't taken a train from Park Station (central Johannesburg) ever in my life. Everyone was buzzing over using public transport again, but it was a middle class thing. We were occupying working class space used every day. This shouldn't be confused with a new South Africa.

Dr Mzukisi Qobo, political analyst: We've shown a different face to the world - but we mustn't go back

The government has tried to use this as a public diplomacy tool to reassert South Africa as a global actor and showcase our infrastructure. The aim was to promote the country as an African hub while differentiating it from the rest of the continent. The World Cup provided a powerful foreign policy opportunity for public diplomacy, placing South Africa among the middle-income countries like Brazil, India and China. It has been successful, the infrastructure and transport system has worked. The question now is: can the government use this as leverage to enhance the country's reputation beyond the World Cup? It's one thing to stage asuccessful event, but it's another to use this to bolster the country's long term image. It's not what has happened that will be a major boon but what will happen. South Africa has an image problem because it's an African country, because of the political risks, because crime is a scar on the nation. The outside world didn't know much about South Africa and this will have given a positive view. But if there is a gradual shift back to what we're comfortable with and the headlines about infighting in the ANC, succession battles and corruption, we'll lose the branding mileage we got from the World Cup.

Greg Krumbock, Shadow Tourism Minister : Visitors have loved what they've found and boosted the economy

In the big picture it's been a huge success giving a powerful message to the world that we have first-world infrastructure. I went to 13 matches and interviewed 95 foreign visitors who were unanimously impressed. They found South Africa cheaper than expected and overall the drive to rebrand the country as safe, friendly and value for money has worked. In terms of the cost, of the 43bn Rand we spent, most of that was for infrastructure like airports and roads that were needed anyway, the World Cup has been an accelerator. Of the 18bn Rand spent on stadiums you should look at (previous hosts) Germany. They spent a lot of money on stadiums and they got a 7 per cent boost in tourism. It's reasonable to assume that we can get a 10 per cent increase. That would add 20bn Rand to our GDP, giving a 6bn Rand boost to government revenues. So the capital outlay for the stadiums can be repaid within three years. What's been spent by foreign visitors is already equivalent to the money spent on stadiums. No country hosts a World Cup to make a direct profit, but the government will be able to generate tax from this to address some of the immense problems South Africa faces.

...but not everyone has enjoyed the fruits of success: Paul Shambira, trade unionist and co-ordinator of World Class Cities For All campaign

The World Cup organisers had this concept of "world class cities" and we wanted to make sure that the concept included everyone. In the process of building the infrastructure a lot of informal traders have been moved. We're not against urban renewal, but people must be given somewhere else to do their business and be able to continue to survive. The poor, they got nothing, and street vendors were left out completely from the World Cup. We wanted the authorities to include vendors in their planning but they were very arrogant when we tried to speak to them. The informal sector provides for more than 20 percent of people in South Africa but it has been pushed out of the area around the stadiums and the fan parks. The informal sector exists – it is everywhere – and the government needs to accept that. Everybody should have been included and had their say. Fifa said that all traders must be accredited but that was made very expensive. The politicians and the elites were making money for themselves and ignored their constituents. The poor lived the World Cup as an entertainment, not an economic benefit. Even if they really enjoyed watching the World Cup after the 30 days they are back to square one.

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