Will it be safe to travel to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup?

This report on South Africa, tourism, and the 2010 World Cup comes from a man who traveled to South Africa on business:

Here’s a write up of my trip to South Africa so far, since I have some time to kill. I’ll spare you hour by hour details, since I’ve mainly been in meetings and those are as banal in South Africa as they are in the States. Instead, here are a few notes on the country, and some interesting stories I’ve heard during my time here. No doubt, there are people wondering about the 2010 Worl Cup so I’ll mention that as well.

The country is fascinating. We speak about developing countries – ones that are somewhere between first and third world – but until you are in one, you can’t really understand the magnitude of that term: “developing countries.” There are few places like this in the world: South Africa, Brazil, Egypt. Soon, Nigeria and Russia. And the dichotomy that exists between the rural, undeveloped parts and the booming metropolises of the country is remarkable.

On the one hand, you have luxury hotels, delicious restaurants and plush office buildings. Goldman Sachs and other firms of its ilk are stationed here. Google came down a few months ago to start scouting areas for its African offices. Stand in Mandela Square – at once the Wall Street of South Africa as well as its Time Square – and you feel as if you are in the States. There’s a steak restaurant that boasts the finest wines and meats in the region. There’s a mall with Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana; a Smith and Wollensky’s; a McDonalds and a KFC; ATMs abound.

You’d feel no different than if you were in your mall back home. Go outside, and there are advertisements for Rent and the Lion King musical. Planned Parenthood is here, as is Toyota. So is ADT; every home seems to be guarded by them. It’s globalization at its finest – the different areas of Johannesburg are called Brooklyn, Manhattan and Chelsea. And, above all, everything is safe. You can’t walk around at night just yet, but during the day, there are no problems. The people are friendly and accommodating. Everyone speaks English, and all the signs in the country are in English, even though the most spoken language of the country is Zulu, the native tongue.

Then you head to the townships outside the city, and the atmosphere is drastically different. Gone are the investment firms, designer shops and commercial restaurants. Gone are buildings, entirely. Instead, you have huts, literally made of cardboard and metal scraps, where people live. The schools are in shambles. There seem to be no eateries – everyone eats at home, with whatever food they can come across.

It is the farthest thing from safe. The government just released its crime statistics, and the violence in the underdeveloped areas is undeniable. Most strikingly, these areas are just outside of Johannesburg, and will soon become part of the city, certainly by the 2010 World Cup. (Johannesburg is a sprawling city, and will soon become the largest in the world when it meets Pretoria, now a half hour drive away.)

Ah yes, the World Cup. The city is, of course, preparing for it. The transit system, which isn’t safe or effective, is being completely revamped, and train lines are being constructed throughout the country. You can sense a feeling of anticipation amongst the locals–the World Cup will be their country’s “coming out party.” South Africa is arguably Africa’s most prosperous economy at the moment, and though many companies are here, the country is widely ignored on the global stage. Frankly, the transition from the Apartheid government to the new one was not terribly smooth, and the country wasn’t stable until around the turn of the century.

That it has made so much progress in less than seven years is truly remarkable, and it has happened so fast that the world has yet to catch up to it. The World Cup, then, is a new introduction to the world. And the World Cup in emblematic of the new South Africa: According to people of all races, soccer is played and followed mostly by the black Africans, while rugby is played by the white Africans.

But before the World Cup, progress must be made in the townships. It’s a slow process, but there have already been improvements. For example, there is a private school voucher program that plucks bright kids out of the townships and sends them to elite prep schools in Johannesburg. This year, some of these students received full scholarships to the elite South African universities, such as the University of Cape Town, and American ones as well. Students from this program will be headed, on a full ride, to Amherst College, the University of Virginia, and others.

Other groups focus on black empowerment. Black Africans make up about 80% of the country’s population, but in the financial sector, many of the businessmen are white expatriates and Afrikaners. This has begun to change as a result of these programs – in fact, all the major newspapers in Johannesburg are run by young, black men and women. But these are only two pieces of a much larger puzzle, and so much has yet to be done.

South Africa, is, on the whole, progressing toward a brighter future. However, it seems to be an anomaly amongst other African nations. Others, such as Mozambique, are still marred by corruption. An example: Mozambique is home to Limpopo National Park, a wildlife reserve. However, after a recent war, most of the wildlife in the region was killed. As the population of animals has been replenished, parts of Limpopo have been converted into a wildlife sanctuary, where humans can not live. As a result populations of people have been displaced to other regions, where the Mozambique government gave them land to live. (Mozambique’s land use ordinates are considered highly progressive and revolutionary in theory. In practice, they are moot, as the government refuses to follow them.) However, the government then sold that land to a sugar company to build a factory there. The government happens to be partners in said company. The people were moved to another land, which was in turn sold to an American businessman who happens to be a fugitive from the U.S. government. Now, these people have been displaced from their original homes, and have no where to go. I have heard a plethora of stories just like this one in my time here. It’s quite disheartening–it seems that for every step forward, countries such as Mozambique take one step back.

I am in Cape Town now. It is renowned as the most beautiful city in South Africa–the country’s French Riviera, if you will. As my trip progresses, I’ll write more. One final note: everything in the country is remarkably cheap. The Dollar hasn’t been doing too well against other currencies recently, but against the Rand, South Africa’s tender, it does remarkably well. It’s about seven dollars to each rand. I went out to dinner with colleagues to a five-star restaurant (the equivalent of a Michelin three-star), and we ate three courses at about 30 dollars a person.

A little more on the World Cup: I’ve heard a lot of different views on how it will turn out. Some of the locals I’ve spoken with think it will be great for the country. The businessmen, who are, again, largely expatriates, think it will expose the flaws of the region. Almost all, though, think it will be South Africa’s re-introduction to the world, for better or worse.

One family in Johannesburg warned me that “actually living here isn’t as idyllic as a couple weeks of chilling out on the beach and picking up chicks who dig the Yankee accent.” They think the World Cup is just as likely to end in total disaster. “You’re gonna have a lot more rich European, South American and Asian tourists stumbling around what is still a very dangerous and largely lawless country.” That’s just their opinion, but it has to count for something.

One interesting note: Prostitution is illegal in S.A., but the government is considering making it legal for only the time directly before and directly after the World Cup. They feel it will happen regardless, and they don’t want soccer fans in jail for picking up a hooker.

In conclusion, there is still plenty wrong with the region. But the signs of improvement are undeniable. However there’s no way that the entire country will be safe for travel so you’ll want to be smart about where you go and travel in groups.

Filed Under: Travel safety

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Comments (5)

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  1. Katherine says:

    I’ve been living here for 12 years and I think that James’ view is pretty accurate. It is not as bad as it seems abroad, but you definitely have to be careful.

    p.s. I am from NJ

  2. James Trotta says:

    Just to clarify – I’ve never been to South Africa so i can’t take any credit / blame for this view. The article was submitted by someone who was in South Africa on business and didn’t want his name published.

  3. Megan says:

    South Africa is spending millions on Security and organizations like INTERPOL are assisting with training. (Link: Security for 2010 FIFA World Cup tops agenda for South African Police Commissioner meeting with INTERPOL Secretary General) I work for a firm that performs security assessments and logistics planning. We believe that individual travelers can help increase their safety on the ground with some research and advanced planning. More at http://www.kivuconsulting.com/Kivu_SA_2010_World_Cup.html.

  4. john says:

    I am living in South Africa and can confirm that it is not safe for tourists. 55 people die in this country every day because of violent crimes. It has not stopped yet, despite the efforts of the government and enlistment of 40 000 additional policemen. If you can still cancel and get your money back – do it now.

  5. Bhinikwa says:

    Im Zimbabwean & i visit S.A quite regurlaly. My assessment is that becareful of whos commenting on these issues. There are many disgruntled & downright negative people who used to benefir a lot in the previous minority govt, who are now discouraging anything positive about S.A. They even lobbied against the World Cup in S.A, encouraged Fifa to switch to Australia, published pictures of violent criminal activities in S.A. So be warned. The reality is something else.

    S.A being an african country has its negatives, corruption, violence, inefficiencies etc but overall, it is a safe sporting country. Check how many successful international sporting events have be staged there with no incidents. We never heard any noise when hosting World Cup Rugby, why now! Food for thought!

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