World Cup crime: Reality vs. hysteria
More than 40,000 police recruits will be on hand throughout the World Cup
Media-fuelled hysteria about crime in South Africa is scaring some tourists off from attending the World Cup, and prompting others to take unusual measures to ensure their safety.
Of some 350,000 foreign fans expected to attend the 32-team tournament in June and July, those with the money to spend are hiring bodyguards, renting bullet-resistant vehicles, and packing GPS tracking devices in their cars and handbags.
It's part of a continuing boom in South Africa's private security industry.
"I've had endless calls for vehicles," said Grant Anderson of Armormax, which installs bullet-resistant armour and glass in vehicles for companies and individuals.
"For the husband there's always a concern that mom and the kids are safe and sound. From their perspective, it's a small price to pay for the kind of safety they require."
A bullet-resistant rental will cost anywhere up to $2,000 US a day. Some parents hire bodyguards — costing as little as $250 a day — to keep what Stefan Grippa of Stratagem Risk International calls a "watchful eye" on their kids.
Think of them as armed chaperones.
"It works quite well," he said. "Sometimes the kids want a night out, going out to restaurants, or if they're old enough, dance clubs, and their parents would like them to do it but don't want them to be in a strange country without any protection."
And if your family doesn't want large men with mirrored sunglasses lurking about, you can rent a GPS, which sends a signal that locates your loved one.
"Our GPS enables our response team to track an individual's position in real time," said Grippa. "So the exact co-ordinates are transmitted to a control room, and if there's an emergency — whether medical or security related — the control room can then dispatch the service needed."
Business is booming for a reason. South Africa's crime levels are among the highest in the world, with more than 18,000 murders recorded last year — an average of 49 a day. (The U.S. reported 16,272 murders in last year on record; the U.K. 651 and Canada 611).
"Because people are increasingly worried about their security, and are losing confidence in the police, those who can afford it will pay for security," stated Johan Burger, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
"This is leading to a huge increase in security and personnel companies. It's becoming a very lucrative industry," he says.
Players will have 'very close protection'
Some folks still have faith in the police, and the foreign soccer players now arriving in South Africa will have to. They'll each be assigned a police protection unit.
All players will have "very close protection," explained Vishnu Naidoo, spokesman for the South African Police Services. "The officers will be part of the team wherever they go."
More than 40,000 new police recruits will be on hand throughout the World Cup tournament. But the lingering sense that police are still lacking in competence has created a gap that private security firms are only too keen to fill.
"The police can't guarantee your safety but we can at least assist in enhancing your personal safety," says Grant Anderson. "Crime's not going to be better any time soon, and it's going to be violent."
Industry insiders say the biggest source of anxiety is car-jackings, which have been on the rise for five years. It's not uncommon for locals to drive through red lights in some areas to avoid being targeted at an intersection.
But those who lack the funds for an armoured car or the stomach for a "security detail" may be consoled by a couple of caveats.
Most violent crime is restricted to specific neighbourhoods and townships, and happens among people who know each other. And aside from car-jackings, much of the country's violent crime has been falling — modestly, but steadily.
'Machete of war'
Rory Steyn, co-director of security consultancy Nicholls, Steyn & Associates, said he has had to divide his time between security planning and trying to reassure jittery visitors that South Africa is not some kind of battleground.
"We've had to deal with the ridiculous hype that's appeared in the U.K. tabloids. It's that kind of over-hyped reporting that has no bearing to the reality on the ground," said Steyn.
Last month's report in the U.K.'s Daily Star, following the murder of white supremacist Eugene Terre'Blanche, warned that England's soccer fans risked getting caught up in a "machete race war" if they came to South Africa.
"I'm not for one minute saying everything is hunky-dory, but I'm a family man, with a wife and two kids," said Steyn. "I run on the roads before the sun comes up. My wife drives my kids to school. I wouldn't stay here in South Africa if it was as bad as what is portrayed in the media. I'd be on a plane to Vancouver."