As it readies itself for this summer’s World Cup finals, South Africa still has a couple of problems that need addressing

The stadia may be there or thereabouts and the police are confident about security. However, it is transport and accommodation that remain the great unknowns ahead of this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.

Fans who are able to travel and find places to stay between June 11 and July 11 will enjoy some of the venues: the steel and concrete giraffes which hold up the stadium in Nelspruit, the enveloping calabash at Soccer City and, above all, the magnificent Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.

But how fans will get from one to another is open to question.

Johannesburg’s ORTIA (Oliver R Tambo International Airport) has a flash new terminal – not before time – and completion of the opening of a new airport in Durban is scheduled, at the 11th hour, for May, but many of the airports continue to look inadequate. Meanwhile, fares will increase three or four times in price between May and the start of the tournament in June, and there are no motorways or inter-city trains as Europeans and Americans would understand them.

Around the time of the draw in Cape Town, a string of government ministers expressed their full confidence in meeting concerns over accommodation and transport.

But if Transport Plan A goes wrong, there is no Plan B.

I found that out, trying to fly from Port Elizabeth to Durban. When bad weather postponed take-off there was no realistic alternative means of making the journey. While that hardly mattered for me, it would matter a great deal for fans attempting to reach a match.

Last June, following the Confederations Cup, FIFA warned that accommodation remained an unresolved problem for the World Cup organisers in South Africa.

The fact that two fan-filled cruise liners will be busily patrolling the southern coast between Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town in June and July hardly sounds like a ring of confidence in terms of hotel accommodation for fans – though local tourism officials insist this is a private enterprise initiative and is unrelated from the official Nelson Mandela Bay accommodation project.

Andrew Jordaan of Match, FIFA’s official ticket and accommodation bureau, is confident about hotel capacity for all matches in Port Elizabeth/Nelson Mandela Bay. This includes the Slovenia v England group game which offers the prospect of a shock overnight influx of up to 30,000 England supporters.

“Our accommodation plans are still on track,” said Jordaan, who is the brother of organising chief Danny Jordaan. “I’m confident there will be enough accommodation in the system. In fact, by the end of January, I think we will even find we have a surplus.”

Hardly convenient
Such optimistic projections, however, are based on a zone of 100 miles from the stadium in Port Elizabeth – which is hardly convenient given the local transport challenges.

Also, Andrew Jordaan’s knowledge of World Cup fan behaviour appeared intriguingly off track when he said: “People will travel from the rest of the world to watch a game only on the basis that they have got a ticket and that they have accommodation.”

He may have a surprise in store. English, Dutch and German fans are noted for being inspired by the challenge of getting to – and into – matches for which they have no advance tickets. None of South Africa’s stated tourism or transport “solutions” appear to take such a reality into account.

The fact that transport and accommodation are now the main focus of critical concern has been welcomed by the security services as proof of increasing international confidence in World Cup safety issues.

Police senior superintendent Vish Naidoo has spent much of the last five years telling anyone who would listen that South Africa has staged a host of incident-free major sports events and that there is no reason for the World Cup to be any different.

He repeated: “At first, all the questions and all the talk was about security. Now the questions and concerns are all about travel and accommodation. That shows people have started to get our message.

“We have delivered more than 150 international events, including the rugby World Cup and cricket World Cup, and various major conferences. These all paved the way for the World Cup, which is truly the biggest event of them all.”

Naidoo has all the figures at his fingertips:
* Around 450,000 football tourists are expected to fly in for the finals.
* The South African police service has been strengthened by the recruitment and training of an additional 55,000 officers.
* Some £64million has been spent on state-of-the-art security equipment, including six helicopters to take the security services’ strength in numbers up to 42.
* Roughly 100 BMW cars have been brought in for extra security on the long, wild empty roads of the Republic.
* Ten new water canons have been purchased for crowd control if necessary.

Naidoo claimed that the first Fan Fest rehearsal – in Cape Town’s Long Street during the finals draw – was a success. However, police had underestimated the popularity and many local fans had to be turned away amid some chaos and confusion.

“At least no incidents were reported,” remarked Naidoo.

But, in fact, there were two unrelated incidents earlier on the day of the draw, both bomb hoaxes. One froze the Cape Town airport for an hour and another emptied the media centre for a similar period. Two men were arrested.

The greater truth is that South Africa is involved in a race against time in the cause of high-speed, short-term self-promotion.

Element number one involves proclaiming its pride in the democratic progress achieved since Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison in 1990.

Equally important, however, is the one-off opportunity to build modern infrastructure as the football provides an event on which politicians can capitalise – without criticism – in a sports-mad country, while expanding the country’s tourism reach.

PR frenzy
The nine provinces have all embarked on a PR frenzy. Eastern Cape, for example, the second-largest province, is branding itself as the “ultimate adventure destination”. That label may turn out to be a bad joke if the likes of England, Germany and Ivory Coast do not take the expected three points from their trips down to the new stadium in Port Elizabeth.

The uncomfortable evidence of sports/tourism statistics down the years is that for all the extra thousands who flood a country during, say, a World Cup, an equal number stay away for precisely that same reason.

More, the global recession has affected sharply the western world’s sports-tourist constituency and World Cup price hikes have exacerbated the disincentive to travel from one end of the world to the other.

South African government officials have an irritating habit of proclaiming “we are ready”, yet it is clear that accommodation and transport provision is not. Such PR overkill is not only unnecessary, it’s insulting to every visitor’s intelligence.

What matters is not empty talk of being ready now, but being ready on June 11.