Africa, Sport

SA dodges the World Cup security bullet. Now what?

SA dodges the World Cup security bullet. Now what?

The terrorists didn’t make it to the party, the cops managed to keep the more violent criminals subdued, and even a sudden walk-out by stadium security staff caused barely a ripple. South Africa apparently learnt a lesson or two about security thanks to the World Cup. Now the question is whether those gains will translate into improved safety for locals, once the tourists go home.

As soon as it became clear that South Africa would not, in fact, fail to have the infrastructure ready in time (and that we would not be watching the tournament beamed live from Melbourne) the chorus piped up with a new question: but what about security?

That question is somewhat harder to answer, because unlike stadia – which you can point to with a self-satisfied finger – security is a many-sided thing. There is everyday personal security; there is big crowd security; and there is national-level security. And, unlike South Africa’s history of completing mega infrastructure projects without a hiccup, the past did not bold well for security. South Africa does have one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, with a murder rate about eight times the international norm, and some 20 times higher than in Britain, according to the internationally respected Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

At least in the short term, though, confronting the everyday crime rate is a brute-force question of resources: the more cops, radios, computers and police cars, the fewer crimes that can be consummated. To learn crowd control and terrorism prevention, South African police watched how the Germans handled their World Cup needs and pulled in help from more experienced police forces elsewhere. By the time the only real security-related issue of the tournament reared its head, when contracted stadium security guards went out on strike, the police had been bulked up enough that they were able to take over for the remaining events at a day’s notice. Which is pretty impressive.

Although final, official tallies are not yet public, estimates by private security companies like ADT are that crime against persons and property (as opposed to, say, political corruption, major bank fraud, illegal gambling or Paris Hilton-style fashion abuses and enjoyment of controlled substances) declined an astonishing 60% during the World Cup period. Despite the UK tabloid panic attacks that spoke darkly of panga-wielding gangs roaming just beyond the stadiums and fan parks, people by the thousands retook their streets, parks and neighbourhoods.

Last Friday, just as the World Cup was winding up (or down, depending on your fan status), the ISS hosted a conference bringing government, researchers and media specialists on crime together to discuss the “what next”, in a cleverly titled conference: “The Sum of All Fears: Crime, Security and the World Cup Crisis That Was (n’t).” For attendees, the key question was how to transfer the real gains in security at all those World Cup “islands of safety” on public transport and at the fan parks and stadia into a real, measurable gain in broader public safety, once the footballers and tourists leave. Conferees were eager to hear how the government – in specific, detailed ways – would retarget and reconfigure all the improvements in police numbers, tactics, equipment, training and communications assembled for the soccer tournament towards gains in the more mundane, daily slog against crime

The national vibe of good feeling for the giant, multi-city event has actually closely followed the experiences of US cities when a heretofore-losing team finally wins a baseball World Series, an NBA championship or a Super Bowl. Civic pride enhanced from sports (as opposed to a real economic bounce from sports) does exist. It shouldn’t have been too surprising even for South Africa; during a 2003 Cricket World Cup, an international Cricket tournament in 2009, and the Confederations Cup soccer tournament last year as well, nothing untoward actually happened here. Nada.

Before the actual party even began, organisations like the ISS, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the American Embassy in South Africa issued the kinds of public guidelines that would help visitors and residents alike survive the inevitable pandemonium and madness of crowds.

These key bits of advice, distilled by The Daily Maverick, are probably worth printing and saving on refrigerators as guidance for some future event here, so we list them below for your delectation:

  • Don’t advertise you are a stranger in town. Criminals have well-tuned radar for those who seem fearful or unfamiliar with an area, or who are not taking the usual precautions.
  • Stow that bling/guard that cash. You may have exquisite taste in Breitling watches and jewellery, but it’s best to keep your valuables (including your passport, cameras, and so on) in a hotel or room safe. If you worry that you’ll forget who you are, carry a photocopy of your passport.
  • If you use an ATM, use one inside a petrol station or in a well-lit shopping mall. Stand close enough that you will obscure your pin number and the money you are taking out. Local criminals are really well trained in reading pin numbers from where they are standing next to those convenient candy and crisp shelves, and then skimming accounts afterwards.
  • Travel in a group. Yes, there are different levels of safety throughout the country and some places are way safer than others, but, yes, too, one can certainly visit the natural parks, the historic monuments and well known places like Soweto and Alexandra as part of well-organised touring. Or, if you are going to a stadium or arena, go with the flow.
  • Listen to the locals; they do live here, after all. Or, ask the concierge or manager of your hotel or guesthouse for recommendations of what to see and when it is best to travel, and how to get there. But, do discount those tall tales about lions lazing in lounges and man-eating, giant rodents. Roads are not always well marked out here in Sefrika-land – and a GPS can sometimes offer implausible, useless or even impossible-to-follow shortcuts. If you are driving lots, buy a current map book as a back-up.
  • If you are driving a rental car, do be aware of the possibility of a carjacking incident. Do remember, however, that in most cases, it is the car, not the occupant, that is the target. Should it happen, try to stay calm and, oh what the heck, give ’em the car.
  • Do be attuned for – but, again, not paranoid about – possible “smash and grab” robberies. Keep cellphones, purses, laptops, and other valuables out of sight – or in a locked car boot. Oh, and by the way, best not to struggle with a robber, they’re probably better armed, and certainly more desperate, than you are.

Of course the big fear was that South Africa and the World Cup would be on the receiving end of a full-on terrorism incident before the tournament ended on Sunday. Ultimately there was no reliable information that any specific group actually had the World Cup in its sights, and certainly not one that actually had the capability to do something about it. Remember that old standard litany of criminal investigations and cinema noir flicks: motive, means and opportunity. Subtract the latter two, and motive was just some angry, snarling guys sharing a beer, or a hookah, and so it proved to be.

Now, it is true that such things have happened in the past, although usually they’ve been plot elements in blockbuster format movies such as the big splash attack on the US football Super Bowl championship in the John Frankenheimer thriller, Black Sunday or the Tom Clancy book-turned-film, Clear and Present Danger.  Real events in the past, by contrast, have been terrible, but much more limited. Here we’re thinking of Black September’s attack on the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics in 1972, or the one-man-with-a-grudge-and-a-bomb, angry at US federal government abortion policies, and carrying out his attack during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

These events got the publicity their protagonists craved, but it also seems that these past, real incidents taught security experts here, and those they were working with, important lessons for dealing with security during mega-sports contests. There was a constant need for rigorously weighing, sifting, evaluating and co-ordinating information and intelligence as well as need for full-scale, ongoing diligence, careful preplanning and constant awareness – right to the end.

This time around, almost universally, there was no hard evidence that Al Qaeda, Hamas, disaffected Somali groups, Laskar-I-Toiba, the Illuminati, the Black Hand, the Taliban, the New World Order, the White Rose, the Rosicrucians, or the Mayi-Mayi had made any sort of serious, credible threat on this World Cup – with the possible exception of a low-level warning from, presumably, Al Qaeda, that apparently appeared online months ago. That threat had said that the US vs England match, right at the beginning of the competition, was their top priority, according to “Al-Mushtaqun Ila Al-Jannah (Those Yearning for Heaven),” a jihadist online magazine. In part, that posting read:

“The game… is broadcast live. The stadium is full of a Crusader audience while the sound of a blast shocks the stands and turns the stadium on its head. God willing, there will [be] dozens and hundreds of casualties. 50 grams alone are sufficient for such an operation…. All the inspection barriers and the X-ray screening machines the US may send after reading this article will not bring about the discovery of the manner in which these explosives will be brought into the stadium, for a simple reason that will be made known at the appropriate time.”

But nothing happened. Nada.

Meanwhile, the South African Police Force said it was staying abreast of such threats and according to some news reports, the US State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) provided support for South Africa’s preparations for the tournament as well. Or as a DS official told Fox News months earlier:

“[the] Anti-Terrorism Assistance [programme] has provided underwater explosive, critical incident, and special events management, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and related equipment training. Diplomatic Security has also provided equipment grants to assist the South African Police Service.”

And South African police minister Nathi Mthethwa added that while they had received no credible threats “we stand firmly on this, we will still test the authenticity of the said media reports as we generally do with any other such reports. We simply cannot ignore them”.

Jarret Brachman, the former director of research in the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, argued that that internet threat was nothing more than some clever rhetoric designed to rile up Al Qaeda’s fan base. “This is cheating in the sense that they’re playing off existing fears. They know we have some fears of them getting explosives through security checkpoints.”

The challenge, of course, was that someone with an absolutely unscratchable itch only had to get lucky once – on international television with an audience of billions – to make their point. Accordingly, security has had to be on the ball 100% of the time. As a result, the police, the anti-terrorist advisors, and the security planners have staked out their tasks of defence and prevention in depth.

For example, in bringing a US vice president to the opening ceremonies or to the US vs England match for example, the various services didn’t simply protect the vice president; they protected the entire area surrounding the vice president. They pushed the odds their way by insisting upon thorough checks beforehand for any sort of suspicious access to the area by items or people; they moved the man in a secured “bubble”; and they brought him into an area that had already been secured, and then kept it secure. This explains all the metal detectors, the guys talking into microphones in their shirt cuffs and that helicopter hovering overheard.

Meanwhile, the police stayed active in keeping known soccer hooligans out of the mix entirely, or putting them back on the next plane leaving Johannesburg. Argentina handed over a blacklist of 800 fans barred from attending and Britain required 3,200 known hooligans to surrender their passports during the tournament, on the theory that keeping them at home is easier than dealing with them at the tournament.

But now that the championship is actually history, South African analysts and citizens alike are expressing their concerns about a possible blowback from disaffected citizens. The infrastructure costs for the football tournament mean funds for housing and related services have been in much scarcer supply. The dissatisfaction shown through service-delivery protests hasn’t gone away, and new threats of xenophobic attacks now loom large.

If you listened to the conversations at the ISS’s recent conference, the real fear is that the government, despite its own intentions, may rest on its laurels. It may not be quick enough or adroit enough to translate its newly-won experience and skills from dealing with a six-week sports tournament to boring day-after-day policing that starts to build the kind of safety every citizen looks forward to experiencing in their own life. It should not be impossible – the country did surpass expectations from the world about its ability to host a successful, even profitable, World Cup. This next task is one that must be addressed or all this hard-won skill and upgrading will have been for naught.

By J Brooks Spector

Read more: Financial Times, New York Times, LA Times, CS Monitor, Fox News, BBC, Sports24


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