CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The taxi drivers hustling around the bars on Long Street in Cape Town say they are ready for all the soccer fans that will flood the city in June for the World Cup. So are hotels, restaurants, breweries and, inevitably, prostitutes.
Arguably, the soccer World Cup is to the sex industry what the holiday season is to candy shops. A temporary surge of excited people feeling collectively festive, willing to pay for a bit of extra indulgence.
South Africa's Drug Central Authority estimates 40,000 sex workers will trickle in for the event from as far as Russia, the Congo and Nigeria to cater to the wide taste spectrum of some 400,000, mostly male, visitors and their apres-soccer needs.
Henry Africa, 49, drives a taxi in Cape Town and, aside from the usual airport pickups and winery tours, he also operates the “Bright Red Tour,” which he expects to be a hit among soccer fans. For the equivalent of 500 dollars, he'll shuttle customers from strip bar to strip bar all night and even bring them over to a safe-sex practicing prostitute, a relevant selling point in a country where one in five adults are estimated to be HIV positive.
Over the years as a cabbie, he says he has seen it all: men hoping to try sex with someone HIV-positive, men getting drugged, beat up and robbed because they thought they could find what they needed on their own.
“If they don't know where to go, they can end up in trouble,” said Africa. “What people pay for is safety.”
Safety has remained the main keyword here, a month before kick off. Hosting the prestigious world soccer tournament is the country's first post-apartheid chance to be in the global spotlight for news other than that associated with South Africa of the last two decades: out-of-control crime, an immense gap between the rich and the poor, racial tensions, staggering AIDS rates and presidential eccentricities. It is South Africa's chance to finally shed its infamous label of an unsafe tourist destination, a tag so despised by locals.
On April 17, in an article titled “Enough already — stop dissing this fantastic country,” the author Carol Lazar sums up the sentiment in the newspaper Star. “The hype overseas whether or not South Africa is a safe country to visit is the biggest waddle around ... Enough now from these assholes oversees who spread doom and gloom,” she writes. “Visitors to South Africa, whether they come for the World Cup or just to holiday, will have the experience of their lives.”
It's no surprise South Africans are defensive about outside criticism. The country has worked hard to show off the “new South Africa” to the world. It has been promoting the marvels of ethnic diversity and advertising its national parks. It's built brand new stadiums, renovated airports, repaired roads and installed free condom dispensers. But the country realizes none of it will matter unless it can provide the one thing everyone is focused on — safety.
All nine South African cities hosting the games have increased police presence in strategic areas. The Cape tourism board issued a code to try to curb sex tourism. Children around the country are being educated about the dangers of World Cup-related sex trafficking. AIDS awareness campaigns have been launched.
Even President Jacob Zuma — himself a polygamist, father of at least 20 children and an infamous condom skeptic — isn't taking any frivolous chances with the World Cup. During his official visit to the United Kingdom in March, he asked the government to supply 1 billion extra condoms to South Africa before the upcoming tournament.
In the view of many, this was seen as a progressive move from a president who doesn't exactly lead by example. Just last week, Zuma announced his HIV tests came back negative, although he has admitted to having unprotected sex with women other than his four wives. Others rolled their eyes at South Africa shooting itself in the foot again by promoting itself as a country that encourages sex tourism and prostitution.
Either way, Britain responded by sending 42 millions condoms, a number sufficient to supply almost every citizen of South Africa with one condom or every tourist expected to travel there with one hundred. Still, some fear that exposing so many rowdy soccer watchers in such a high infection-risk area might result in an increase of HIV rates upon their return to Europe.
A Congolese prostitute, who goes by the name "Scarlet" and works on Long Street, arrived here last month and will stay in Cape Town for at least a few months or maybe permanently, "if God allows," she said. She wears a black tank top with the logo of Bafana Bafana, the name of the South African national soccer team, "The Boys."
Work has been slow, she said, but she's hopeful the World Cup will change that.
“White men like black women,” she said proudly about the anticipated wave of soccer fans in search of exoticism.
Scarlet says she uses condoms most of the time, unless men pay her extra to not use one. “Men don't like condoms,” she said.
Most do, however, like soccer.