US ambassador downplays South Africa alert

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to South Africa downplayed the State Department's crime alert to Americans attending the World Cup.

Ambassador Donald Gips, wearing a U.S. national team road jersey, attended Sunday's American training session, which was watched by several hundred vuvuzela-blowing children brought by youth groups partnering with the embassy.

"There is no new concern about violence," Gips said on the side of the field. "South Africa does have a crime problem that they're addressing, and we want to make sure Americans are aware of that and stay in places that are safe."

On May 27, the State Department cautioned U.S. citizens in South Africa attending the World Cup to keep car doors and windows locked while driving and not to leave valuables in plain view or to wear expensive jewelry.

"Criminal activity, including violent crime, is prevalent throughout the country," the department said.

Gips said South Africa had to progress from its past.

"It is a country that is coming from the legacy of apartheid," he said. "In the 15 or 16 years since it's been a free democracy, they've made huge strides, but it's a very difficult legacy to overcome. So there are still problems that need to be addressed."

South Africa once projected it would draw 450,000 international visitors to the World Cup, which starts Friday. South African tourism minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, speaking in New York in April, said the figure could be as low as 300,000.

Gips said FIFA estimated 132,000 tickets had been bought in the United States. That is the most tickets purchased outside South Africa, but the number of American visitors isn't clear.

"We don't really know how many that's going to translate to, but somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 is our best guess at this point," he said, projecting that to be about double the usual average.

He thinks the World Cup will leave a strong legacy.

"You look at the infrastructure that has been built, the roads, the airports, the stadiums, those can be very positive," he said. "I think if the Cup goes off smoothly, as I predict, I think a number of people are going to look at South Africa and see a country that is very different than what their normal conception of Africa and the problems of Africa are."

The children attending practice, who got to get autographs from players after training, included English-language students; members of the math tutoring program Sabimaths; the Moepathutse Children's Center; education students at the Rosa Parks Library in Soweto run by the U.S. consulate in Johannesburg; Child Welfare Tshwane; the Winterveldt HIV/AIDS Project; Nurturing Orphans of Aids for Humanity; and American Peace Corps volunteers and students they assist in Mpumalanga.