A civil war South Africa just cannot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2007, 12:00am

Austrian Peter Burgstaller went alone for a round of golf to clear his head after being cramped in a long-haul flight. He was lining up a putt on the 12th hole when strangers approached, pulled a gun and shot him through the heart at point-blank range. He died on the blood-soaked green for the contents of his pockets - a mobile phone and a wallet.

On Thursday, two men appeared in court in connection with the November 23 slaying in South Africa that shocked many in the sports world and raised the question of how safe visitors to the next football World Cup will be.

'Suspects have been arrested for being in possession of certain items suspected to belong to the deceased,' police spokesman Zandra Hechter says. 'They have been detained pending further investigation.'

Details of Burgstaller's murder are unclear. It appears he was playing alone, having just arrived from Europe, and had booked in at the exclusive Selborne Estate, on the southern coastal region of KwaZulu-Natal. In the early evening, with the sun still high in the sky, he was killed with a single shot through the chest.

Burgstaller, a former footballer turned event organiser - he was Austria's national goalkeeper and played for SV Salzburg - was in South Africa to drum up business on the back of the 2010 World Cup, for which South Africa is the host nation. Although he was not part of the official Fifa delegation that was also in the country last weekend, his death did prompt many to question safety preparations for the event.

Football officials were quick to react. 'In a city of more than 3.5 million people, some crimes are more possible, as [they are] in other countries,' Fifa president Sepp Blatter says. To illustrate his point, Blatter mentions that a teenage girl was shot and killed at a Zurich bus stop during the same week Burgstaller was murdered.

Still, few countries not actively at war can top South Africa's body count. Almost 50 people a day are burned, hacked, shot, stabbed and throttled to death. Police say more than 19,000 homicides were recorded last year, which, on past performance, was pretty much average.

Given the carnage, it is easy to see why Burgstaller's murder disappeared quickly from local news pages even as it was making headlines in Europe. A sampling of news reports this week, for instance, tells of a man whose eyes were gouged out by muggers in KwaMashu, near Durban, so that he could not identify them.

An employee of Telkom, the national telephone company, was shot and left for dead while repairing a signal box. His attackers took his cellphone and laptop. And in Johannesburg, two criminals were shot dead by a member of the public as they tried to car-jack a woman in a red Porsche.

Stories like these are routine for local newspapers. For those who can afford it, living behind razor wire and subscribing to an armed response service has become a way of life.

Most crimes involve ordinary citizens, but occasionally public figures are drawn into the picture. US talk-show host Oprah Winfrey is now doing damage control after a school she started near Johannesburg for gifted, but indigent black girls this year was rocked by claims that a dorm supervisor systematically bullied and, occasionally, sexually harassed the girls in her charge. Winfrey has since fired the headmistress and senior staff members as police investigate the incident.

Two prominent former rugby players who served in South Africa's World Cup winning squad of 1995 are facing separate criminal investigations - former Springbok centre Japie Mulder has admitted to molesting an under-age girl, and hooker James Dalton allegedly throttled his wife and threatened her with a knife.

Even the country's politicians are not immune. A municipal counsellor was shot dead last week outside his house in rural KwaZulu-Natal, not far from where Burgstaller met his end. In the meantime Jacob Zuma, who may well be the next president, was acquitted of rape charges last year but could still be charged with bribery and corruption relating to a multibillion-dollar weapons deal.

Given the scale of the problem, it is hardly surprising that the police find themselves struggling to cope. A few days ago a man on trial for murder in Nelspruit, in the east of the country, disappeared from the courtroom. A few hours later he showed up again. The reason for his absconding? He'd been hungry, he explained to the presiding magistrate once his trial resumed, and had slipped his guards to go out for lunch.

A day later in Pretoria, South Africa's capital, news reports said that police had threatened to arrest a man for cradling the corpse of his son, shot a few minutes earlier during a robbery. The officers claimed the man was 'disturbing the crime scene' and therefore obstructing their investigation.

For South Africa, hosting the World Cup is an emotional event. Legions of expatriate footballers playing in Europe and elsewhere testify to the power of football in Africa. It is rare, however, for a major sporting event to be held on the continent. Invariably, events that are held, like the Paris Dakar rally, emphasise Africa's rawness rather than its progress.

The ruling African National Congress, therefore, is eager to use the 2010 World Cup to demonstrate Africa's ability to host a world-class event.

'Some people might have aired their scepticism, but they will see in four years' time that Africans can do this,' President Thabo Mbeki said at the closing of the tournament in Germany. 'They will see that Africa can discharge its responsibilities the same as every other continent.'

Work on the 10 host stadiums is ahead of schedule, a public transport scheme is being implemented and the country has even hired champion Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, to improve the fortunes of the lacklustre national team.

Road systems are being upgraded and a high-speed rail link is under construction to connect Africa's largest airport to the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. A mood of excitement is beginning creep into the national discourse as South Africans come to realise that this will indeed be their moment in the sun.

Yet the issue of safety remains.

'I've seen the police safety plan for 2010 and it's one of the most sophisticated of its kind,' says Johann Burger, an analyst at the independent Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

'It's not just a plan on paper; they've already begun to roll it out and we are already seeing the effects.'

The police force has been bolstered with 30 000 extra recruits, and another 30,000 more are to be added, he says. By 2010, the force will number 190,000 men, making it the largest in Africa. Money has also been set aside to buy new helicopters, communication equipment and vehicles.

They have borrowed instructors from the FBI and taken on board ideas from the police in Germany, host of the 2006 tournament.

Mr Burger says that as bad as crime statistics are, the numbers do show a steady decline. 'We've seen a decrease of around 20 per cent in serious and violent crimes since 2003, when the country hosted the Cricket World Cup. Given their past experience, it seems as if the police will be able to ensure safety for the tournament.' He points out that during past events such as the cricket and rugby world cups hosted in South Africa, no serious crime-related incidents involving tourists were reported.

Previously, this was managed by flooding event venues with police. The tactic was usually a success, but at the expense of other areas where the already thin blue line was plundered to protect tourists.

'This time it will be different,' Mr Burger says. 'Police will be deployed not just at soccer venues but also along transport nodes, tourist sites and other areas where people are expected to gather. This is expected to continue past 2010 as there are no plans to reduce police numbers after the tournament.'

The mass recruitment drive, together with a substantially increased budget, show the government has had a significant change of mindset. Crime is no longer seen as the dinner-table complaints of pampered whites decrying their loss of 'protected game' status, as one politician labels it. Now, with up to 450,000 people expected to attend the biggest global event ever hosted on African soil, the realisation has set in that safety cannot be ignored.

'This is the largest event we've ever had in Africa. The police won't be leaving anything to chance,' Mr Burger says.