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Can football save South Africa from its biggest threat?

Adam Alexander
Published: Tuesday August 22, 2006

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Cape Town – like New Orleans, like Madrid, like Dublin – is one of those places where hedonism is considered more a celebrated way of life than a dangerously amoral condition.

But few cities in the world have as gigantic and glaring a gulf between rich and poor as Cape Town, or are nearly as violent – only Rio de Janeiro, perhaps. Or as sexy. There are so many modelling agencies in Cape Town that some of the streets are like cat-walks.

Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio. Having recently finished filming "The Blood Diamond" in Africa, he couldn't stay away from here. During filming, he reportedly took his R&R regularly in Cape Town, going out "on the pull" in nothing less than a minibus. Known affectionately here as Leo’s "Bang Bus," this vehicle was convenient for returning to his room at the prestigious Mount Nelson Hotel (where he'd leave a do not disturb sign on his door that read "Let sleeping wolves lie") with as many as three long-legged lovelies in tow.

I met DiCaprio in a trendy Camps Bay bar called Caprice. Feeling bold, I told him about some film idea I had. Without long legs and a great pair of breasts, though, it was a losing battle trying to hold his attention before the next wave of gorgeous babes threw themselves shamelessly at him. (“Welcome to the world of celebrity. It doesn’t matter. I could be Paris Hilton,” he said to me, and for a moment I wished he was.) But as he dismissed me with his million-dollar smile, he gave me a big high-five and his email address. Afterwards I thought: Where else in the world would this happen?

A few days later, I found myself in another bar a few feet away from British pop sensation Robbie Williams. Robbie was here to do some concerts and make a sexy video, and it wasn’t long before I read a column in the local paper griping about how stars like Robbie can come here, shopping, clubbing and making self-serving, ego-worshipping videos, and not have it cross their mind to perhaps drop in on some poor folks.

Poor folks? Ah, yes. Here in Cape Town, they’re everywhere, too--like the modelling agencies. Thousands of them. Millions of them. People who live in houses your dog would refuse to go in. Tin, makeshift, one-room sweatboxes in summer, fridges in winter. A sea of struggling, destitute, dog-eat-dog humanity that runs for miles alongside the road from the airport to town, making it the first thing any tourist sees who comes to Cape Town.

Those poor people. Too often, these two vastly different worlds – truly a heaven and hell on earth – collide. And when they do, it can be brutal.

The latest thing is people who live in the squatter camps dropping boulders from motorway bridges onto the windscreens of luxury cars passing underneath – resulting already in a number of deaths. A perfect example of the mindless violence that people here have become almost inured to, in a country with 18,000 murders a year, and so many rapes and robberies that South Africa is now classified as the world's second most violent country not at war, after Colombia.

More specifically, Cape Town is still reeling from the murder of two young white males, both well-known actors, who were found naked in a park with bullet-holes in the backs of their heads, sending shock-waves through South Africa’s entertainment industry. Everything they had was stolen. This came on top of the similarly senseless killing, a week or so earlier in Johannesburg, also execution-style, of one of South Africa’s top TV directors – making you wonder if the old adage about show business being murder isn’t being taken a little too literally down here.

As all suspects in the murder of the two white actors are "coloured," it also makes you wonder how racism here will ever be beaten. Thanks to South Africa’s uniquely chequered past, seriously-deranged people come in all colours – but how do you stop being wary of people who are statistically the ones most likely at any moment to drop a boulder onto your lap or put a bullet in the back of your head? In that way, violent crime is continuing to poison people's minds.

The ANC government's reaction has been decisive. Those that don't like it can leave, they say. Or so said the man responsible for fighting crime, Charles Nqakula, South Africa's Minister for Safety and Security. The furious backlash has since had him furiously back-peddling, and he has now ordered an inquiry into the nature of violent crime. Either that's the old politician’s trick of appearing to do something without doing anything, or it really is a mystery to him.

South Africa’s violent struggle against apartheid, together with its vast inequalities in wealth, has left it reeling from one of the highest per capita rates of violent crime in the world. The murder rate in South Africa shot up at the onset of democracy 12 years ago, but after peaking around 2001, it began to fall. Police statistics show that while 21,405 homicides were recorded in 2002/2003 in South Africa, only 18,793 murders were committed between March 2004 and April 2005. Interestingly, perhaps, 80 per cent of murders are committed by people who know each other.

Crime expert Johan Burger, a researcher linked to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, agrees that South Africa’s inequalities in wealth are a “huge contributing factor.”

“Many people have been saying for a long time that if the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots continue, and in fact it is getting wider, then things can only get worse,” he told RAW STORY.

Meanwhile in Cape Town, the world of the very rich and the world of the very poor – more reliant on each other than either would care to admit – continue their fragile co-existence. At one extreme, it is a world of wine-tasting, fine dining and Californian pretensions to a belief in spirituality. At the other extreme, a world of squatters' camps where daily horrors of necrophilia, child-rape, cannibalism, and a medieval belief in witchcraft merit little more than an occasional paragraph in the paper, simply because of their frequency.

Sandwiched in between, people of all colours are struggling hard to make the new South Africa a success and to earn their living in a place they affectionately call the "Mother City." The breathtaking scenic beauty, the wonderful cuisine, the talk of becoming an African Hollywood, these are not the only attractions of Cape Town and the country as a whole. But twelve years on, the fledgling democracy of South Africa has still not fully recognized the country's biggest threat – the horrendous level of crime.

Thankfully, football may come to the rescue. A recent spate of bloody and senseless crimes, and the hammering the country anticipates – given its reputation for being crime-ridden and unsafe – as it prepares to host the 2010 World Cup football tournament, have placed the focus firmly on violence. Indeed, stories have already surfaced that FIFA, the World Football Association, has a contingency plan for another venue if South Africa looks to be too unsafe.

“This does assist us in putting the focus very sharply on the security situation,” says Burger, who says the number of police, currently at 160,000, is expected to rise to 185,000 by 2010.

“But I think the Government lacks a proper understanding of what they are confronted with,” he says. “The idea that you can combat crime deeply rooted in socio-economic conditions with increased policing is a fallacy.”

Debate over the possible effects of crime on the World Cup was stirred last month when a group of crime victims launched a Web site dedicated to giving potential World Cup visitors a "preview of death and violence" in the country.

"2010 will be one more factor that will make the government here want to protect its citizens and its visitors," a U.S. State Department official in Cape Town said. "And they're working on it from what I know."

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Adam Alexander.