- Associated Press - Friday, July 9, 2010

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - Doomsday scenarios seem to go hand-in-hand with mega events like the World Cup, and concern was even deeper than usual heading into the tournament in South Africa.

This a country best known for the brutality of its apartheid past, and a future clouded by high rates of crime and poverty. Beyond that, South Africa was a distant and little-understood destination to tens of thousands of World Cup visitors from Europe and the United States _ making it all too easy to fill in the gaps with speculation about race wars and terror attacks, and to believe warnings that tourists would need to rent stab-proof vests before venturing from the airports.

With two games still to go, those doomsday fears have faded. South Africa is being praised as a warm and capable host, and even a possible Olympic candidate _ assuming all goes well at the final on Sunday at Soccer City.

Jorge Santos, a 26-year-old Brazil fan from Rio de Janeiro, was among those who braved the trip and lived to tell the tale:

“I didn’t get mugged,” he said as he strolled through an upscale Johannesburg shopping center between matches. “My experience here was way better than expected.”

Crime _ armed robberies, carjackings and even murder _ was a major concern.

Most of the country’s crime, though, pits the poorest of South Africans against other poor South Africans. Police said they did not expect tourists to be targets, but they took no chances. Leaves were canceled, 40,000 new officers hired and recruits taken out of academies for temporary duty to ensure enough staffing to keep World Cup fans safe.

Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s deputy police minister, said the country can now celebrate.

“You have fought a war and won it on the basis of the feeling that this thing is going to be a failure,” Mbalula said Friday at a public debate on the legacy of the World Cup.

If anything, officials have been criticized for taking too hard a line on law and order. Special courts established to expedite cases during the World Cup have handed down strikingly harsh sentences.

In one case, five hotel maids convicted of pilfering football shirts, a medal and underwear from members of the England team were given three years in prison and fined 6,000 rand (about $800). Such sentences, especially coming as they did while the games were still on, were meant as deterrents. Some may be lessened on appeal.

In January, a deadly attack on the Togo soccer team while in Angola for the African Cup of Nations tournament in January focused attention on the possibility of a terror attack on the World Cup. Never mind that South Africa has no separatists like the Angolan group that claimed responsibility for the attack, and that many terror experts rated the possibility of an attack here as low.

The Iraqi government announced in May it had arrested a Saudi citizen accused of targeting the World Cup, based on conversations he had had with a friend about lashing out at Danish and Dutch teams to avenge insults against the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Qaida in Iraq denied the government’s version.

Fears were raised again in late June, when state media in neighboring Zimbabwe linked a man trying to cross into South Africa using a fake passport to the November 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai. It was never clear why such a suspect would have designs on the World Cup, and Pakistani officials did not even deem the story worthy of comment. Within weeks Zimbabwean police were saying that the terrorism links were “a media creation” and that the man was only facing illegal immigration charges.

The death of white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche with just weeks to go before the World Cup started set off speculation racial tensions could erupt. Police say a wage dispute led two black farmworkers to beat Terreblanche to death. White militants in the South African heartland, who considered Terreblanche their leader, at first vowed revenge but then called for calm. And Julius Malema, leader of the youth wing of the African National Congress, has toned down rhetoric seen as anti-white.

Race and violent crime may be particularly South African issues. In at least one other area, South Africa was part of a global trend _ fears that human trafficking spikes during events like the World Cup and the Olympics. There were claims 40,000 prostitutes would be brought to South Africa during the World Cup. The same figure had been cited four years ago in speculation about increased trafficking in Germany before the last World Cup.

“There is no empirical evidence that large-scale sporting events lead to an increase in human trafficking,” researchers from South Africa’s Forced Migration Studies Program said in a June report.

In a nation with more people infected with the virus that causes AIDS than in any other country, concerns about disease were inevitable. But Rift Valley Fever?

After reports from abroad indicated concern about an outbreak here of the disease, which primarily infects animals, South African health officials issued a statement saying “visitors coming to South Africa for the FIFA World Cup are not at risk unless they handle infected carcasses on farms or handle raw meat from infected animals.

“It is highly unlikely that visitors would be involved in these activities,” South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases concluded.

Social scientist Merle O’Brien marvels at how quickly news from South Africa in the foreign press switched from headlines about farm animals to praise, such as an article in Britain’s Telegraph by London Mayor Boris Johnson calling the World Cup a “joyous success.”

O’Brien was involved in one of post-apartheid South Africa’s first attempts to understand what the world thought of it, a 1999 survey of business leaders and opinion makers. O’Brien said researchers found South Africa was personified as a poorly educated child infected with the AIDS virus.

A survey 10 years later, she said, found the child had grown into “this creative kid with lots of ideas.” South Africa was a teenager who was in school and headed for a stable future.

Now O’Brien’s optimistic a post-World Cup survey would produce an even more positive picture.

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