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Beyond football: The real South Africa

PUBLISHED: 18:07 21 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:26 01 July 2010

David Blackmore, in South Africa for the World Cup finals, reports on what the host nation is really like and discovers that behind its 'friendly face' is a country beset with a crime problem.

David Blackmore, in South Africa for the World Cup finals, reports on what the host nation is really like and discovers that behind its 'friendly face' is a country beset with a crime problem.

Before heading out to watch England try to win the World Cup I was warned by friends and family about the dangers of going to South Africa.

I was told I would be mugged, burgled, kidnapped or even murdered during my stay in the Rainbow nation by people who have never set foot in Africa.

So I took the discouraging words with a pinch of salt and I was hopeful of proving them wrong and discovering a better South Africa.

But what I have found is crime is still a major problem in the country, even though it is falling, and that the threat of crime haunts South Africans.

I have spent the majority of the World Cup so far staying in Boksburg, near Johannesburg, which is deemed a crime hotspot.

On arriving at my accommodation I was greeted by a huge gate, high concrete fencing and a growling dog - a modern day fortress.

Then when I looked around all the other houses along the street were equally protected - some even with barbed wire - and I wondered what I had let myself in for.

I had also noted when driving from the airport that a number of roads were gated, had 24 hour security and this gave me an early insight into perhaps how bad it once was.

On meeting my hosts I was straight away told to be careful and vigilant when walking around the area.

I was told of the possibility of being mugged, burgled, and also given a list of a few places to avoid - like a nearby township.

One of my hosts, Merlin Jeremiah, told me: "A lot of people in South Africa were worried about how foreigners would get on out here.

"There are areas here and throughout South Africa that are no go areas even for South Africans and we were really concerned that foreigners might wander into these places.

"The crime in South Africa is high compared to other countries. There was a time when we had a lot of burglaries and ordinary citizens would come home to see the things they worked hard for had been stolen.

"That is why there was a big movement to put in all the security you have seen as a precautionary measure and it's helping to bring crime down.

"However, we are all aware that being a victim of crime here is still as much of a reality than ever before here and that does play with our minds."

He added: "What I have been telling foreigners is that it is fine here if you are sensible, think, have an open mind and be alert at all times."

I have come across people in my time here already who have been a victim of crime with one incident being some England fans who were burgled on only their second night.

Two of the victims, a father and son, had everything taken including money, cards and a playstation. They looked devastated before England's opening World Cup game and ended up travelling home soon after.

The other members of the house didn't lose as much but were equally shaken by the experience as they were asleep at the time of the burglary.

England's opening game against USA in Rustenburg, which is very remote, also gave me an insight into the crime troubles in South Africa.

After the game and on leaving the ground, fans struggled to find their coaches because they weren't parked in the same place and coaches left Rustenburg half empty.

My coach left with about 20 people missing and I have heard many sad stories of what happened to those stranded fans.

Some who ventured along the dark streets of Rustenburg in search of their missing coach were bundled into cars and mugged. Others were offered lifts back to Johannesburg before being driven around the corner and mugged.

Police officers even rounded up a group of stranded fans and stayed with them until 3.30am, over five hours after the game finished, to protect them whilst they waited to be picked up.

There were also stories of fans who in desperation took a taxi to Johannesburg - about two and a half hours drive away - only to find their driver drunk.

I have been lucky that my hosts have driven me around the area but it has not been through kindness - through fear of letting me walk around anywhere.

But even when they drive, they make sure the doors are locked and are always looking around at stop junctions and traffic lights.

"You do get people who wait close by a junction and then pounce on cars," Mr Jeremiah tells me.

"They either smash the window and take what's on your seat or try and take your car."

I have also spent some time on the other side of the country in a holiday resort just outside Cape Town, which is deemed safe.

I have found the apartments still have the same level of protection as Johannesburg and the locals have given me the same talk about being alert at all times.

But being slightly out of a major town or city, I feel safer and I haven't encountered any crime victims - yet.

Despite the crime stories I have heard and the threat of crime, I have found the real South Africa more welcoming than I ever imagined.

Every South African I have met has been delighted to meet me and every foreigner I have come across has told me they have enjoyed taking in the culture.

One South African told me that he has learnt so much about foreign cultures because of the World Cup.

He added that hopefully South Africans can take what they have learnt from the tens of thousands who have travelled to the country and put them to good use.

Another has told me people should come to see the beautiful things in South Africa like Table Top Mountain and said his country still has a lot of "growing" to do.

It is also clear from all the people I have met so far that families have a stronger bond in South Africa compared to England.

The first example of this has been the host families I've stayed with in my time here so far who all live on the same land or on the same road.

They all eat together, go to church together and there is such a great feeling of love and care for each other.

Another example is in the township close to my Johannesburg accommodation where families gather every Sunday to watch drag racing.

I was driven through the township by my host and was lucky enough to see tens of families all mingling together on a crossroad watching the cars.

In general, the South Africans I have come across are so helpful, will do anything they can to help and go that extra mile.

The country has beautiful scenery and appears to be a nation on the rise and looking to add to its already colourful culture.

The real South Africa still has its troubles but it is not quite the crime ridden nation I was told to expect and I would love to return when the World Cup is over.

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