JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Going to the 2010 FIFA World Cup was supposed to be scary. Tourists venturing to the country could expect to be gouged, either by the inflated price of goods or quite literally by the knives of the country’s denizens of thieves.
The truth on the ground is a bit different.
"I feel perfectly secure," Jay, who traveled from America, said outside the United States-Slovenia match on Friday. "[There are] tons of cops. I was worried a little bit when we first came here, but after walking around a little bit, they shut the place down."
Crime still exists, but it’s no worse than one might expect when 450,000 tourists descend upon a nation. The difference is that while a robbery occurring during the 2006 World Cup in Germany was seen as a random act, a similar situation in South Africa symbolizes a systemic failure of security. This is the price a country pays for having a deservedly bad safety record.
The World Cup organizers promised to keep visitors from harm’s way, and they trained 45,000 additional security forces to help. Despite a protest over pay, the plan is working. Additionally, most crime in South Africa occurs between downtrodden residents of the city’s slums. Visitors who know where and, more importantly, where not to go should be fine.
The frightening reality, however, is never far away. Get lost after leaving a restaurant on 7th street in Melville, Johannesburg’s five-block-long answer to Smith St. in Carroll Gardens only with guys who will watch your parked car for a small fee, and you rapidly find yourself in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham. Residents huddle around trash fires, loitering in front of burned out buildings located on abandoned streets. This is horror story South Africa.
Fans, however, can avoid these areas with a smart driver and/or an updated GPS system. (Many roads are so new they don’t show up on maps. And don’t even bother asking for directions: “You just have to make sure you ask five people,” Jay said. “You put it together and eventually you get the right answer.”)
Tourists see an occasional “Hijacking Hotspot” sign on routes to matches held in stadiums such as Rustenburg that lie outside of major metropolitan areas, but these warnings are only vaguely intimidating in the light of day. (At night, driving on these narrow, frequently unlit roads requires an act of faith, bravery, or stupidity.)
Near matches, local residents solve problems for a nominal charge.
"We drove the to the United States-England game and tried to find an official park and ride but it was really far away," American Patrick Greely said. "We parked in someone’s yard for 100 rand [roughly $13]."
The highlight of the World Cup is the soccer and getting into a game isn’t difficult. FIFA, international soccer’s organizing body, attempted to limit scalping by putting the buyer’s name on the ticket and claiming they would check ids at the gate. They don’t, and you can find tickets for almost any match.
"We’re staying at the hostel and there’s quite a few on the board to sell." Francisco Rios said. "People told us that there were tickets for the opening match on the street the day before."
Tuesday night, South Africa’s national team — nicknamed Bafana Bafana — were bounced from the tournament despite beating France 2-1. The country, which stopped during the squad’s games, can now focus 100 percent on finishing its hosting duties successfully.
Rios, traveling with his teenage son Stephen, enjoys the atmosphere, but is glad one member of his family remained behind.
"I feel safe here," he said. "But I don’t know if my wife would feel the same way."