Work officially started Friday on a new international airport in Durban to cope with the expected influx of tourists for the 2010 World Cup.
Transport Minister Jeff Radebe said that the new airport would be able to handle 7.5 million passengers annually and accommodate long-haul and new generation aircraft — which the current airport in the Indian Ocean coastal city cannot do.
"The work we are doing here should bury whatever doubts that might still exist about our state of readiness for hosting the 2010 Soccer World Cup," he said at the ceremony marking the start of construction — and of the start of a 1,000-day countdown to the tournament.
South Africa is undergoing a major overhaul of its transport system in preparation for the World Cup, which it hopes will act as a catalyst for economic growth and a boom in tourism. The airports at Johannesburg and Cape Town are being expanded, new roads are being built and rail links upgraded in a package costing more than $5.6 billion.
But there are serious doubts that, even with the new investment, the transport system will be able to cope with the anticipated 350,000 tourists expected to flood into the country and the millions of local fans who will be on the move at the monthlong event.
Top of the list of fears is the dangerous minibus taxi fleet, which is the main means of transport in a country with few railway lines. There are regular shootouts between rival operators over lucrative routes, drivers are notoriously aggressive on the roads and rude to passengers, and the aging, unreliable vehicles are the cause of countless fatal accidents.
"It can't be business as usual — not with the 2010 World Cup on our doorstep; not with the escalating number of passengers dying on our roads," Radebe said in a speech to the taxi industry late Thursday.
The government has so far scrapped 9,400 old taxis, paying owners to get rid of vehicles that are not roadworthy. But changing the behavior of the drivers is another matter.
Apart from the transport headache, the government is up against the clock in stadium construction — though insists it will be ready on time.
New stadiums 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. Upgrading work is proceeding on Johannesburg's 95,000-seat Soccer City, venue of the opening match and final, at Johannesburg's Ellis Park as well as three other stadiums.