Johannesburg – Portugal fan Pedro Pinto expected to see South Africa’s World Cup played amid fields of poverty. Instead, he was surprised by the country’s riches, and by its police seeking bribes.
“This is not what I expected at all,” he said while strolling through Nelson Mandela Square, a plaza of pricey boutiques dominated by a statue of the former president, in a neighbourhood that calls itself Africa’s richest square mile.
“When we heard that the World Cup was coming to Africa everyone back home was worried. I was not expecting a developed country like this, this is a sophisticated country,” the 32-year-old said.
“My ideas about the country were proved wrong shortly after landing in Johannesburg,” said Pinto.
The car mechanic from Coimbra arrived on his first trip to Africa in time for the June 11 opener, and was whisked from the airport to the city on the new three-billion-dollar Gautrain high-speed rail.
He’s staying in Sandton, near Nelson Mandela Square, home to the stock exchange and corporate headquarters that create an immense concentration of wealth.
“I was expecting old buildings that are falling apart. To my surprise people are driving expensive cars everywhere,” said Pinto who has never been to Africa before.
He said he was impressed by the overall organisation of the tournament, which was made even better by the friendliness of local people.
“The country prepared well, the stadiums are great. You see police everywhere and getting to the stadiums is easy because the roads are good and you can fly around the country,” he added.
“Many of us had reservations about safety here. After two weeks we have realised that it is not that bad at all. We even walk back to the hotel in the evenings after dinner,” said Pinto.
Security, crime a concern
Security is one of the critical issues around the event, with 40 000 police deployed around the country to safeguard the tournament.
But crime, like the relentless poverty that 40% of the country still endures, is largely confined to shantytowns on the outskirts of cities, far from the stadiums and the well trod tourist trail.
Rather than crime, Pinto’s main complaint was about corrupt police who solicited bribes from foreigners.
“These officers are spoiling the happy mood and creating a bad image for this country,” he said.
“This one officer in Cape Town asked me to pay him R500 so that he does not send me to jail for parking in the wrong place,” he said, adding that he’d heard similar stories from other foreign fans.
“I have been speaking to some other foreign fans who are here for the World Cup, many of them have been intimidated by police and asked to pay money for small offences, for almost anything,” added Pinto.
“In some cases ordinary people in Cape Town demand money when you stop to ask for directions. This is a very bad habit, some even get angry when you don’t give anything.”
Pinto and two friends hired a car to travel around the country between games, having read media reports that South Africa’s public transport was lacking.
After arriving, he found government officials pleading with fans to take trains and buses that were upgraded for the tournament.
“We read that there were problems with public transportation in the country, now we find ourselves being treated badly by people who are supposed to protect us,” said Pinto.