Notes from South Africa 2010: The Security Buffer

Editor’s note: Our regular columnist, Andrew Guest, is in South Africa for the World Cup.

One reason I’ve felt reasonably safe almost everywhere I’ve been around this World Cup is the sheer numbers of South African staff in and around all the venues.  There are highly visible hives of blue uniformed police, yellow jacketed ‘volunteers’, orange vested ushers, purple shirted information booth attendants, and seemingly every other color possible in this rainbow nation.  Most often these folks are quite pleasant while milling about the stadiums or the fan parks in small groups, chatting and enjoying their own people watching while maintaining different types of buffer zones.  I don’t know the actual count, though at any one venue they must number in the thousands.

But the more I think and read about that presence, my feeling of safety morphs into thoughts of discomfort.  All the World Cup stadiums I’ve been to here have a first set of people minding cold chain and wire security fences that start several football fields away from the actual stadium gates.  Those fences feed into initial checkpoints where tightly packed lines are funneled through metal detectors and guards proffering pat downs.  After discarding any food or drink and escaping questioning from blue-blazered FIFA hosts, there is a zone of well-spaced sponsor booths blaring sanitized music while staff peddle wares.  From there you find the correct gate and allow another staff member to insert the bar-code side of your ticket into a scanner that, if successful, unlocks a person-sized turnstile that looks like a cattle shoot.  Now you are free to fill up on plastic bottles of Budweiser or Coke (and Budweiser or Coke only), before making final negotiations with ushers at the gate nearest your seat.

Aside from the generally jovial mood of the masses and the glorious relief in finally seeing the emerald green of the pitch, the whole process reminds me of movie scenes portraying captives shuttling into a prison camp.  It reminds me that the trade for my feeling of safety is a willingness to accept that I am entering a modern version of Foucault’s panopticon.

In that vein, it has been interesting to read some of the local commentary on how the police have been employed to address concerns about security in South Africa.  In one analysis, Gwinyayi Dzinesa in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian used the World Cup to discuss broader issues of security in South Africa:

“The exclusive, leafy suburb of Sandton in Johannesburg recently witnessed an extraordinary show of police might as specially trained officers parachuted from the sky and others abseiled down the side of tall buildings.

The display was meant to reassure everyone about the South African Police Service’s [SAPS] ability to tackle any trouble at the World Cup.

But the exhibition also confirmed a widely held view that the police, whose job should be primarily to preserve the conditions necessary for the safe exercise of public rights and freedoms, are being turned into warriors.”

Another angle of critique focuses on the unofficial forces—the temporary staff working as ushers, information attendants, and the like.  These folks, you may have read, are putting in long days during this World Cup at astonishingly low wages for a multi-billion dollar mega-event.  According to the Mail & Guardian, for example, World Cup security crews are getting less than the equivalent of two dollars an hour for 10 or 12 hour shifts.  In contrast, security guards at South African rugby matches earn around 15 dollars an hour for three hour shifts.

Yet the few poorly paid workers with the courage to complain have been the exception rather than the rule—around the five stadiums and four official ‘fan parks’ I’ve visited all the different types of staff have been unfailingly polite and willing to help.  They have not always been particularly informative—questions such as where can I find an ATM or a taxi have proven surprisingly challenging—but they are always trying.

When I took a quick and unplanned side-trip to Durban the other day, for example, the people at an information booth near the beach-side ‘fan park’ were most kind in looking up possible accommodations for the night.  One young woman in particular, adorned with a silver tooth, riotous braids, and a charming version of the Queen’s English, offered to call most of the hotels in the area to find one with both a reasonable price and internet access.  Though she seemed to have no idea what a fair price should be, she was perfectly happy to walk along on a mission to actually look at the several of the rooms.

During the walk we chatted about her work; she liked being around the energy of the games, was sorry no one will be able to go up to the top of the arch over Moses Mabhida Stadium until after the World Cup is over (for ‘security reasons’), and tended to avoid the rabble-rousing over either wages or game results.  She also happened to agree that the US was robbed of its third goal in the Slovenia game.  Surprisingly, however, her strongest opinion was about the female Holland fans who had been arrested outside Soccer City in Johannesburg for wearing orange dresses sponsored by a beer company: “No, come on—you can’t just have that guerilla marketing…and with those short mini-skirts!  No.”

So maybe I’m taking this all too seriously. Maybe I should just agree with the kind host in Durban and assume FIFA is simply doing what it has to do.  Maybe I should just accept that safely enjoying a modern World Cup requires the uncomfortable realization that prison camp-like buffer zones are a symptom of a dangerous and unequal world. Maybe I should just enjoy being around all the pleasant and colorful people—no matter what they are being paid or what they represent?

Outside Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban

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