World Cup stampede renews concern over South Africa's preparedness

Sunday's World Cup stampede during a friendly between Nigeria and North Korea injured more than a dozen people, but officials say this will not be a problem at any of the tournament's official matches.

By , Staff writer

Sunday's stampede at a friendly World Cup warm-up match between North Korea and Nigeria has renewed questions about whether South Africa is adequately prepared to provide security.

The stampede occurred in the township of Tembisa -– mid-way between Johannesburg and Pretoria, the nation’s capital. The private company that organized the event handed out 10,000 free tickets, but thousands who didn't receive a free ticket still pushed to get inside the stadium. At least 14 people were injured, including a police officer.

World Cup organizers, the International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA), offered condolences to those injured but quickly distanced themselves from the friendly, which was organized by the two participating teams and occurred at a stadium that will not be used in the World Cup, which begins on Friday.

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“FIFA and the OC [Organizing Committee] would like to first wish a prompt recovery to those who have been affected by these incidents,” FIFA said in a statement. “In addition, FIFA and the OC would like to reiterate that this friendly match has no relation whatsoever with the operational organization of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, for which we remain fully confident.”

Security: Always a big worry

From the very moment in 2004 when South Africa was announced as the host of the 2010 World Cup, security became the biggest question about South Africa’s fitness to be a host.

The question is a natural one. South Africa has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, with newspapers daily printing the lurid details of the latest shootout between police and carjackers, police and cash-in-transit heists, and, in one memorable incident, between police and police.

Yet security analysts say that South Africa’s government has prepared well for the World Cup and predict that official games run by FIFA are likely to come off without a hitch.

“The government has been very, very serious about security and very committed to make the World Cup as safe as possible,” says Johan Burger at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria (or Tshwane, as the nation’s capital is now known).

Beefed-up police force

The South Africa Police Service (SAPS) has built up its personnel ahead of the World Cup from 120,000 in 2001 to 193,000, and the ratio of police officers to citizens is at 2.8 officers for every 1,000, above the international norm of 2 for every 1,000.

In addition, the SAPS has successfully secured other high-level sports tournament in recent years, starting with the cricket World Cup in 2003, which attracted 60,000 visitors and lasted for six weeks.

It also hosted the Confederations Cup soccer tournament last year, the Indian Premier League cricket tournament, and the British Lions rugby tour of South Africa.

In none of these tournaments, Mr. Burger says, were there any serious security incidents involving teams or fans.

Yet the World Cup is a whole other ball game, Mr. Burger admits, with an estimated 325,000 foreign tourists expected to attend 64 games spanning a month across the entire country. The challenges of protecting all those people are numerous.

“With an event this size, it just increases the chances for terrorist acts, because it is such an attractive target,” says Burger.

Better cooperation against terrorism

South Africa itself does not seem to be a target, but the presence of such teams as the United States, England, the Netherlands, and other countries that have participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could attract militants. South Africa has improved information sharing between its intelligence agencies and police and the country has stepped up its cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies.

The National Joint Operational Intelligence Structure of the SAPS recently issued a firm denial to stories printed in the South African newspaper, the Times, which claimed that extremist cells had training camps in the mountainous neighboring country of Swaziland and in South Africa's Free State Province.

“Although the NATJOINTS is not prepared to discuss intelligence matters for obvious reasons, we can categorically deny the existence of a ‘watch-list of 40 terror suspects’ or the arrest of any person directly targeting the World Cup,” the SAPS said in a statement. “We can also dispute the existence of ‘operational militant training camps in several provinces in South Africa.’”

But Burger says that South Africa’s government does take terrorist threats to the World Cup seriously. “South Africa is aware of the fact that especially matches involving the US and Britain might possibly have a higher risk than other matches, and this has been taken into account to try to reduce the risks and the opportunities for extremists,” says Burger.

Common crime the top concern

In some ways, the greater challenge in these World Cup matches will be to protect visitors from the everyday crimes that seem to be a fixture in South African life.

“Criminals also see the World Cup as a huge opportunity, and they will be out in force,” says Burger. “But police have provided for that, and while it is impossible to protect each and everybody, their increased numbers will have a positive effect on security.”

The best solution for protection against crime – which can include armed robbery, home invasions, or carjacking – is to “respect the general rules and tips given to them when they arrive in South Africa,” says Burger.

The SAPS will be giving security tips to visitors, both at airports but also at hotels and guesthouses. Tourists can also ask the advice of locals on where to go, when to travel, and most importantly, to travel in large groups.

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