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Time to Go to the Mattresses

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Just over a year ago I had a friendly breakfast with Mo Shaik, who was being widely touted as the probable next head of the South African Secret Service. I asked him if it would be a challenging job. He looked thoughtful and said: ‘Well, there are quite a few men with turbans and long beards who would like to use our soccer World Cup to make, shall we say, an explosive political statement of their own.’ Mo was duly appointed and has since turned predictably silent and invisible. In the last two weeks, however, there has been growing media anxiety that al-Qaida will try what Mo was hinting at. One American security analyst has said there’s an 80 per cent chance of an attack but how he came up with that number is anyone’s guess.

One thing that’s certain, however, is that South Africa is wide open to international criminals of any type. Relatively small bribes can buy you passports, visas and work permits; there is a large and flourishing crime scene dealing in everything from drugs and gold bars to trafficked women and body parts; and there are all the flesh pots, international banks and transport links you’d find in New York. There are also large Muslim communities in most urban centres, with some fanatical elements, but there is absolutely no evidence of al-Qaida activity of any kind and I rather think that Mo will be equal to the challenge.

As a whole South Africa is being worked up by an endless media barrage into a great state of excitement and expectancy about the Cup. The advertising tends to stress Africa, not just South Africa – perhaps just as well given the home team’s weaknesses. Ads show African footballing greats – Eto’o, Essien, Drogba, Pienaar – first in dreary English settings and then returning home to the African sunshine, where they’re met by vast welcoming crowds. It is Africa’s time, we are told. The clear message of the ads is that Africa is going to win the Cup. Portugal’s recent walloping of Cameroon and Holland’s thumping of Ghana in pre-Cup friendlies may have injected a dose of realism, but the media will continue to encourage all manner of fantastical expectations.

The most worrying feature at this stage is the rumble of threats – audible everywhere, in bus queues, townships and even in the press – that 12 July, the day after the World Cup Final, will see the beginning of a fresh pogrom against foreign Africans. Between 2000 and 2008, 67 people were murdered in xenophobic attacks, and then another 62 were killed in a single month, when riots swept the country in May 2008. Here in Cape Town pamphlets are being distributed in townships and squatter camps warning that after 12 July there will be a major ethnic cleansing. Four months ago in the squatter camp nearest to me, Malawian huts were burned, and their inhabitants attacked and driven away: they haven’t returned.

All the necessary elements are here: unemployment around 40 per cent, virtually open borders, and a black population furiously disappointed with the failure of the ANC government to deliver on its promises. A protest against poor service delivery will often degenerate into attacks on foreign shops. In the comfortable suburb where I live, the houses all have domestic servants from either Zimbabwe or Malawi, or so I’m told by my Zimbabwean gardener. His view of the local Xhosas is typical: ‘They won’t work, they blame the whites all the time and they complain about everything. Yet things in Malawi and Zimbabwe are much harder than here. For us this is a land of opportunity.’ His relatives include a computer programmer, a car salesman and a engineering student. Quite clearly, this is Cape Town’s future black middle class in the making. It’s perhaps not surprising that they’re resented.

During the xenophobic riots in May 2008 I suggested that the members of our servants’ extended families who live in squatter camps would be safer if they came to stay in our house for a while. It reminded me a bit of The Godfather, the way the Corleones would leave home during a gang war and ‘go to the mattresses’. I suspect we may need to get the mattresses ready again, come 12 July.

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