- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

CAPE TOWN, South Africa | With the country’s president kicking a soccer ball off a stand, South Africa began its one-year countdown to the World Cup at a nearly complete stadium overlooking Nelson Mandela’s former Robben Island prison.

“We have made it,” President Jacob Zuma said Thursday at Greenpoint Stadium.

Zuma spoke amid cheers from construction workers and the honking of vuvuzelas, the plastic horns that could become one of the tournament’s hallmarks.

The 68,000-seat stadium is to be completed in December. It has come to symbolize the pitfalls and prizes that go with the country’s role as the first African nation to hold a World Cup.

The stadium was long delayed by residents angered at the prospect of raucous soccer fans disrupting the tranquility of some of South Africa’s most expensive real estate. The cost of $550 million is way more than originally budgeted, and there are fears it may become an expensive white elephant after the whistle blows on the semifinal it hosts.

But it has also provided a platform for Cape Town to launch a $1.5 billion infrastructure program to upgrade transit and other facilities that would otherwise have been neglected. That pattern is repeated in other host cities.

The government says the infrastructure investment - planned and budgeted while the economy was blooming - will help create jobs and lift South Africa as it deals with its first recession in 17 years.

“It’s the best possible time to have investment,” said Michael Jordaan, the chief executive officer of South Africa’s First National Bank. “It is the most wonderful thing that we have a deadline. We have to get the stadium ready and the roads. It’s very fortuitous that the timing hits us right now.

“Barack Obama talks about being shovel ready,” Jordaan added. “We’re already shoveling.”

But he said the economic benefits of the World Cup were likely overstated and that South Africa still had to overcome many challenges to make the tournament a success.

While international attention has focused on stadium construction and South Africa’s ability to protect fans from crime, the biggest stumbling block has been transportation.

All major airports are being upgraded. But plans to create rapid urban bus systems that would supplement erratic and often-dangerous minibus taxis are being fiercely resisted by taxi drivers who have threatened to wreak mayhem if they are ignored. The government and taxi associations are trying to resolve the impasse, even as construction work continues on bus lanes.

“It is our biggest concern, no question,” Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape province, told delegates at the World Economic Forum.

There are also questions whether there will be enough accommodations for the expected 450,000 fans and whether South Africa’s communications network will be advanced enough to handle the anticipated 15,000 media members.

Zuma, who was elected president in April, dismissed all the worries.

“We have proved to the world that South Africans are special people,” Zuma said. “When we have challenges, we always rise to the occasion.”

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