Japan was the first nation to successfully qualify for the World Cup back in June, but for many, next year’s trip to South Africa still represents a trip into the unknown. In the first of a three-part interview, I spoke about security issues with Marc Fletcher, a British doctorate researcher at Edinburgh University who recently spent 19 months investigating the football scene in Johannesburg.
The one issue that just won’t go away as we count down towards the Finals is safety. Sadly, it raised its ugly head again during the Confederations Cup, and as the European press continue to voice concerns, the South African officials appear more and more irritated as they dismiss them. As a Brit who’s spent the last year and a half watching football in South Africa, what’s your take on things?
Right, I only had one thing happen to me in those 19 months I was there. I had my camera stolen at the beginning of January this year in Jo’burg at Kaizer Chiefs vs. Mamelodi Sundowns. That was it. I have never once been physically threatened or intimidated. This one match was actually an interesting case because I accidentally got caught in a bit of crowd trouble just before the game. Some of the fans were trying to storm into the main stand when they only had the cheap tickets, so there was pepper spray being used and mounted police as well. But these instances were rare. At the Confederations Cup, it was far more organised in the ground itself. It was far safer, there was a much better security presence – people knew what they were doing far more than they would do in a normal South African domestic game. That was noticeable straightaway. There are still some problems that need to be ironed out, definitely, when it comes to security...
But what about away from the stadiums? The Confederations Cup wasn’t attended by many British reporters, but Gabriele Marcotti in The Times came back talking of treacherous drives at night and having a gun pulled on him at one point – if catered-for journalists encounter such perils, what chance does your average supporter have?
Fair enough. I’ve lived in Jo’burg, and throughout my work and the people I’ve met, I’ve heard stories of car-jackings and of being in shopping centres when there’s been armed robberies. But you have to acknowledge that, at least in Johannesburg, it is a dangerous city, but there are steps you can take to minimise the risk. When I did my research, I would be walking around areas of the city where I was told it was dangerous, but I just wouldn’t carry much on me. I would have a very cheap mobile phone, so even if it got stolen, it wasn’t the end of the world. I didn’t carry much money.
A lot of it is to do with the fear of crimes and with perceptions, rather than the actual reality. What you have in South Africa, in a way, are a lot of white South Africans who live behind their high walls and electric fences, with big gates, armed security guards, and panic buttons. They’re scared to leave their houses unless it’s to get in their cars and go to work or to the shopping centre – whereas in reality, for me anyway, it’s a lot different. I could walk or drive around in these areas. Quite often I would have a Kaizer Chiefs shirt on, and that made a lot of difference – people would come up to talk to me. But you’re just as likely to get mugged in, say, Sandton – one of the richest areas of the city – as you are to be mugged in the centre of the city, which is suffering from a lot of urban decay. It’s hit and miss.
So what should supporters do? Say, if you have a group of fans from Japan, which is obviously a very safe country...
Unfortunately you do have to go to that country, especially Johannesburg, with a certain mindset that, yes, something could happen to you. It’s not a nice mentality to have, and I developed that during my time there – a certain thick skin – but the thing is to just get over it and get on with it. I knew of one girl who was walking around in the centre of the city with a big digital SLR camera, taking a lot of photos, and had absolutely no problems whatsoever. Her camera was worth around £500, but nobody cares. It’s all about fear and the perceived danger of crime, rather than the actual reality.
So the most important thing is to be aware, but just not overreact about such things?
Yeah. For us in the West, the stereotype of the Japanese tourist is one of having all their cameras on and taking tons of photos. And the thing is, there’ll be lots of people there doing that. There will be a much bigger police presence in the whole city, and I really do think that a lot of the locals will also look out for tourists. They might try to sell them something, but fair enough! With the experiences I’ve had, a lot of people just wanted to look after me because a) I was white, b) I was foreign, and c) I was crazy enough to go to their local football matches. And a lot of people really enjoyed showing me how they lived their lives and how they watched and supported football. So I think the vast majority of South Africans will want to welcome the tourists and look after them. It all goes hand in hand.