Cape Town:The clatter of construction trucks and cranes cuts through the morning chill as an army of hard-hatted workers dismantles a dilapidated sports center and prepares the ground for a stadium which, in almost exactly three years time, will echo to the chants of nearly 70,000 World Cup soccer fans.
The burst of activity in downtown Cape Town is mirrored the length and breadth of South Africa as the country gears up for the World Cup, building new road and rail links, expanding airports and erecting hotels for more than 350,000 visitors.
South Africa will be ready - and safe - for the world for the first match June 11, 2010 kicking off a monthlong international party, government leaders insist on a daily basis, a refrain echoed by FIFA. Organizers point out that the country has hosted rugby and cricket World Cups and major international conferences. But doubts persist.
"Plan A is South Africa, Plan B is South Africa, Plan C is South Africa and Plan D is South Africa," FIFA President Sepp Blatter said at the world soccer body's congress last month in an attempt to quash persistent rumors that he might move the showcase held every four years because of fears that South Africa can't cope.
"I was fighting to bring the World Cup to Africa. Now, I am not fighting, I am confident we are doing it," said Blatter, who will visit South Africa June 18-19 for a look at progress so far.
Deputy Finance Minister Jabu Moleketi, who is overseeing the planning and spending, said, "Pessimists will have to eat their words."
The pessimists have plenty of ammunition. Top of the list of problems is transport. South Africa does not have a slick national railway network like Germany's. Notoriously dangerous minibus taxis, crime infested commuter trains and long distance buses form the backbone of the transport system here - though the wealthy minority use cars and planes.
"Twenty-Ten" is being uttered across the nation. The tournament is seen as a magic bullet, with the government using it as a catalyst for a desperately needed transport overhaul costing more than $5.6 billion.
"For the first time in the history of South Africa we will have massive investments across all transport systems - passenger rail, taxis, buses and road networks that will form an efficient, affordable and reliable integrated public transport network," Transport Minister Jeff Radebe said recently.
The minister predicts an additional 60 trains, 600 luxury inter city buses, and 10,000 minibuses will be needed to transport fans on the busiest days at the World Cup. He says this is manageable.
The country's main airports currently resemble building sites as their terminal and parking facilities are expanded. A new airport is being built near the Indian Ocean coastal city of Durban.
The Gautrain project - a high speed rail link between the capital Pretoria and the economic hub of Johannesburg - is way above budget and behind schedule. But authorities say the segment linking Johannesburg airport with the posh suburb of Sandton - home to many of the hotels - and the city center will be ready. The government is also upgrading commuter railways in other cities and setting up networks of high speed buses.
It is offering minibus taxi owners cash to scrap old vehicles and buy new ones. But it is up against a brick wall in reforming taxi drivers who routinely ignore traffic laws and intimidate other road users. Dozens of people have died in the past year as rival taxi operators compete for lucrative routes.
Stadium construction and renovations are in full swing - leaving the housing ministry fretting about cement shortages and rising raw material prices for houses for the poor. Two new stadiums to host semifinal matches are being built in the southern coastal city of Cape Town and in Durban, as well as in the northern town of Polokwane, the northeastern city of Nelspruit near Kruger National Park and the southern port city of Port Elizabeth.
Cape Town's planned 68,000-seat arena, which was delayed by political infighting and legal challenges, is slightly ahead of schedule, according to city spokesman Pieter Cronje.
Work in progress
Upgrading work is proceeding on Johannesburg's 95,000-seat Soccer City, venue of the opening match and final, with contractors maintaining that it will be complete with its shell resembling a calabash ahead of the October 2009 deadline. Renovations are also going ahead at Johannesburg's Ellis Park and elsewhere.
The government has earmarked $1.1 billion for stadiums.
On accommodation, Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk believes South Africa will be able to secure the 55,000 rooms predicted to be needed. A four-star hotel opened in Soweto last year in a development heralded as "opening the floodgates" to new accommodation in the townships.
Van Schalkwyk has also committed the country's stunning national parks to providing accommodation and, if need be, to erecting tents for the visitors. "Imagine the unparalleled luxury of attending a morning soccer match followed by a sunset game drive," the minister said at a recent seminar.
Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula earlier this year went on a European tour to look for advice and try to convince skeptics that South Africa will be safe in 2010, despite the rampant armed robberies, muggings and a murder rate of more than 50 per day. Police numbers will be boosted to 190,000 - up from 152,000 - by the time of the tournament.
High profile murders and armed robberies - including a robbery in April against South African Football Association CEO Raymond Hack - do not help Nqakula's case.
The big unpredictable factor is the weather. The tournament will be held during winter in South Africa. Temperatures are near freezing at night in Johannesburg; gales and torrential rain are buffeting Cape Town and even balmy Durban feels distinctly chilly.
Organizers insist that they will develop the concept of Fan Parks, which were so wildly popular in Germany last year, not least to allow hundreds of South Africans who can't afford tickets to watch the matches. Just don't come expecting tropical African nights!