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Who's the better host: Johannesburg or Beijing?

Preparations for South Africa's World Cup pale next to China's for the Olympic Games.

The country has built some impressive stadiums that will create a positive impression on television viewers, notably the African cooking pot-shaped Soccer City stadium in Soweto, and the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, which offers stunning views of the Indian Ocean from its skyline cable car.

Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, the main gateway to the country, has been refurbished and expanded, and a soon-to-open high-speed rail link, the Gautrain, will whisk arriving passengers from the airport to the Sandton area of Johannesburg. Roads to stadiums have been fixed up and a new rapid bus network put in place to help transport visitors.

But public transport infrastructure for the most part remains a confusing mess. Transportation experts have warned that soccer fans who zipped around Germany’s efficient train network to attend World Cup matches four years ago will likely find travelling in South Africa to be a frustrating experience.

Crumbling basic infrastructure is a major problem. South Africa faces a continuing electricity shortage, and many areas of Johannesburg have had power outages in the past month despite reassurances that there will be enough power during the World Cup. South Africa has arranged to buy power if necessary during the soccer championships from neighboring countries — even from troubled Zimbabwe, which has power outages of its own.

At the gleaming new airport terminal in Johannesburg, meanwhile, the authorities cannot stop the rampant baggage theft, with an apparently uncrackable crime syndicate responsible for the perennial problem. Some foreign visitors will find their welcome to South Africa tempered by the unpleasant discovery that their luggage has been pilfered.

Unlike in authoritarian China, South Africa’s democratic government must answer to its citizens, including its powerful unions. Strikes plagued the construction of stadiums and expansion of public transit, and this week a strike by rail workers has stranded 2 million commuters. Rail networks are expected to be important in helping World Cup visitors travel between matches.

South Africa desperately wants foreign soccer fans to come to its World Cup, but arrival numbers look to be below expectations due primarily to the cost of travel, while some fans have been put off by the country’s notoriously high crime rate. As few as 220,000 foreign tourists are expected to visit South Africa for the World Cup, down from earlier estimates of 500,000.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, became increasingly fearful of having foreigners around as the Olympics approached — non-Chinese citizens are more difficult to control. So the government made it tougher than usual to get a visa to China during the Olympic period, and tourist numbers to Beijing actually dropped.

In Beijing, in addition to limiting the number of foreigners who might have protested or caused a scene, the migrant workers who built the Olympic facilities were sent home to the countryside, along with beggars, street snack vendors, bicycle cart-riding recycling collectors and the rest of the riffraff that give the city its character. Sidewalks in Beijing were dotted with armband-wearing volunteer snitches, making sure that no one said boo.

South Africa has not entirely foresworn such a strategy. Johannesburg police are busy rounding up prostitutes and beggars, and hassling Zimbabwean migrants, including some of the craft vendors that sell their handmade beaded wares streetside.

But so far the clean-up campaign hasn’t affected the colorful flag hawkers crowding Johannesburg’s traffic lights.

Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to clarify the number of viewers expected for the World Cup.