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Thursday, June 10, 2010
Updated: June 14, 8:17 PM ET
How safe is South Africa?

By Luke Cyphers
ESPN The Magazine

Police Officers
South Africa needs to be on high alert for crime and terrorist activities.

PRETORIA, South Africa -- En route to a U.S. training session in Pretoria, the two elements of South Africa's security efforts during the World Cup come into stark relief.

In the air is a light airplane, circling over the U.S. team's bus motorcade during its journey from the hotel to the practice field, an acknowledgment, though few will officially acknowledge it, that World Cup teams are possible terrorist targets.

On the ground, a road sign near a major intersection on the way to the training stadium from outside this capital city reads: HI-JACKING HOT SPOT.

At any major international sporting event, safety is an overriding concern, and has been ever since the terrorist attacks at the Munich Olympics in 1972. But at this World Cup, two kinds of security threats -- both the personal and the political -- are center stage.

Reports about al-Qaida plots have been investigated in the months leading up to the tournament, and mostly dismissed, with South African and U.S. officials declaring that there has been no "credible" terror threat to this point. Meanwhile, the country's well-publicized crime rate has come under even more scrutiny this week, as foreign journalists and visiting teams have been the targets of robberies.

But South African officials say a coordinated, multinational security plan is in place to keep visitors safe during the tournament, a plan that will benefit the country for years after the tournament. "When we did our planning, every little detail was taken into consideration, from the biggest terrorist threats to the smallest crimes," says Col. Vishnu Naidoo, spokesman for the South Africa Police Service.

Police spotter plane
A police plane circles above the ground during a Netherlands training session.

The biggest threat is international terrorism. This World Cup, particularly an opening-round match between England and the U.S., presents a high-profile target.

But late last month South African police minister Nathi Mthethwa said reports of plots by groups ranging from al-Qaida to local white separatists were overblown. "There is no threat to South Africa as we speak now," he said.

The U.S. State Department issued a similar statement late last month: "While a number of terrorist threats against the World Cup in South Africa have appeared in the media in recent weeks and months, the U.S. government has no information on any specific, credible threat of attack that any individual or group is planning to coincide with the tournament."

That doesn't mean the hosts are breathing easy. "South Africa has never been a terror target in the past," Naidoo says, "but we couldn't allow that fact to make us complacent."

South Africa's murder rate in the last 10 years has hovered among the highest in the world, and advice to tourists includes: Never walk the streets alone, don't display jewelry and keep personal electronics out of sight.

South Africa has not been associated with terror, but other countries on the continent have extensive links, such as Somalia. And with large numbers of immigrants crossing the border from troubled neighboring countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique in recent years, it's been hard for South Africa to keep track of just who is entering the country.

Beyond that, security experts say there is an increasing risk from U.S. residents who have developed jihadist sympathies and traveled abroad seeking training. Two New Jersey men were arrested at JFK Airport in New York on Sunday, accused of planning to join al-Qaida-connected groups in Somalia.

To combat such threats, South Africa has worked with other countries in the region, sharing intelligence on purported plots and potential wrongdoers seeking to enter the country. While Naidoo won't divulge details, he says, "I can tell you we have 110 percent cooperation from everyone in the region."

South African police hold regular meetings with police agencies throughout Africa, as well as meetings with Interpol and representatives from its 188 member countries. "We've definitely had more frequent cooperation from police chiefs around the world," Naidoo says.

That intelligence gathering extends beyond suspected terrorists and into the realm of what may be the more prevalent threat to the peace of the World Cup: violent robbers, soccer hooligans and scam artists.

South Africa's murder rate in the last 10 years has hovered among the highest in the world, and crime fears have created a nation of walled neighborhoods, homes surrounded by electrified fencing and this frequent advice to tourists: Never walk the streets alone, don't display jewelry, watch yourself at bank machines, and keep personal electronics such as cell phones out of sight.

In the week ahead of the tournament, several crimes have already attracted global attention. Several Chinese journalists were mugged in the center of Johannesburg on Wednesday; the same day armed men robbed two Portuguese journalists and one Spanish journalist in the northwest city of Magaliesburg. Three members of the Greek team said money was stolen from their hotel rooms.

But Naidoo says global efforts to keep the tournament safe are already having an effect. He pointed to the deportation of 11 "barra brava," or Argentine soccer hooligans, who were allegedly planning to disrupt the event. The 11 names came from a list of around 800 given to local officials by Argentina. "We have databases that have been very effective in identifying people involved in organized crime," he says.

One database flags lost or stolen passports, making it easier to catch criminals using them. Another is Interpol's list of DDPs, or "dangerous or disruptive persons." Any person identified on the list as being part of organized crime or involved in incidents such as gang fighting will not be allowed into South Africa.

Police officers
Police officers train for the World Cup at Sturrock Park.

Asked how often people on those lists are stopped from entering the country, Naidoo says, "It's not happening daily, but we are monitoring every minute. Our counterparts in other countries are also working on problems from their end, in ways we're not always aware of."

For example, if English police stop a known soccer hooligan from boarding a flight from London to Johannesburg, "We won't necessarily know about it," Naidoo says. "It's not our concern. But it is part of the security planning."

The most visible, and perhaps lasting, security precaution is the 55,000 new police officers hired across the country in preparation for the World Cup. There is a large and visible police presence in the Johannesburg-Pretoria area, far greater than at the Confederations Cup held this time last year.

That presence will continue long after the last World Cup ball is kicked. The new police can help a burgeoning community-policing movement in the country, where citizens are becoming more trusting of the justice system. "We can benefit from this injection of new young energetic police men and women for decades," Naidoo says. "And this would not have happened without the tournament."

Does that mean the HI-JACKING HOT SPOT signs' days are numbered?

"We'll keep the signs up, to make sure people are alert," Naidoo says. "But with the new officers, there will be less and less crime. It will be gradual, but it is getting better."

Naidoo also says that the media are making big stories out of the early crimes. "But there have also been plenty of positive developments." He points to a large World Cup rally in the middle of Johannesburg on Wednesday that snarled traffic but created little trouble. "Those events went off without any real problems," he says. "Nothing anybody could report on negatively."

South Africa has its collective fingers crossed, hoping for more of the same.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Additional reporting by Leander Schaerlaeckens.