DURBAN, South Africa, May 19, 2010 (AFP) - As the World Cup nears, authorities in major host cities are rounding up vagrants, street children and prostitutes in a campaign to spruce up the image of urban areas.
As the continent's biggest economy, South Africa's streets are a magnet for immigrant beggars, who see the country as a step out of poverty.
In the last two months, police in Johannesburg swooped on mainly Zimbabwean blind beggars who roam the busy streets and women who sit with babies at road intersections -- much to the anger of rights groups.
"Their presence violates the city bylaws and we arrest them. In many cases those in need, like women with children and disabled people, are referred to places of safety, where they can access welfare services," said Edna Mamonyane, spokeswoman for the Johannesburg Metro Police.
"This is a normal police exercise, but we have intensified our efforts because of the World Cup," said Mamonyane.
"We have had a really tough job with the prostitutes, every day they are warned or arrested," she added.
The campaign has infuriated sex worker groups and street kid advocates, who accuse the police of trampling on the rights of the downtrodden by sending them to poorly serviced facilities.
"It's a violation of our bill of rights... They're not allowed to do it. The legacy that it's going to leave behind is that human rights were violated in the process of trying to put on a world event," said Warren Whitfield, chief of Addiction Action Campaign, an advocacy group.
"The problem is vast. People are being removed from the streets and put into shelters and concentration camps," he said.
Street kids in the coastal city of Durban say that over the last two months police have rounded them up and left them at a facility on the city's outskirts.
"They tell us we must go back where we came from. They say Durban is dirty because of us," a 13-year-old boy told the Times newspaper.
More than 400 children live on Durban's streets, and most of them have been removed, according to child welfare groups.
Durban's newly revamped beachfront promenade, which will be transformed into a fan zone during the World Cup, has become unusually empty, free of loiterers and illegal vendors.
Prostitutes had been flushed out of the popular harbour precinct, dotted by chic restaurants and bars, dashing hopes of cashing in on the influx of potential clients.
Sex workers had hoped for leniency during the World Cup, after some government officials proposed legislation to legalise prostitution.
But the proposal was abandoned after fierce objections from Christian groups and opposition parties.
The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force (SWEAT) has proposed distributing condoms and lubricants packaged with a football logo during the tournament as a precaution in a nation where 5.7 million of the 48 million population are HIV positive.
The Cape Town-based organisation also recommended that coasters be printed with the message: "Don’t leave this bar without picking up a condom," to be placed in bars where matches will be screened.
SWEAT says the forced removals of prostitutes from popular spots would not deter them from operating.
"We are expecting an increased sexual activity among sex workers during the World Cup period. The prospect is chilling for a country that has the world’s highest HIV and AIDS rate," said the organisation.