The man in overall charge of Durban’s World Cup preparations fell like a stone towards the manicured grass pitch inside the city’s spectacular new stadium.
“Durban is absolutely ready,” shouted Mike Sutcliffe, red-faced but grinning, seconds after an elastic bungee rope had broken his fall and left him swinging gently in the humid air.
A hundred days before the World Cup begins in South Africa, this cosmopolitan port city on the Indian Ocean is racing to complete an ambitious billion-pound refurbishment of local infrastructure that officials insist will be on time, on budget, and destined to reshape Durban for years to come.
“No white elephants,” said Mr Sutcliffe, the city’s manager, after his inaugural stadium jump.
“Unlike any other country that has hosted a World Cup, or an Olympics, ours has been developmentally oriented.”
By now, he was standing on a viewing platform, reached by a small train, back at the very top of the giant white arch that loops over the £250m stadium.
“We’ve made sure everything we’re building here is something for beyond 2010. Sustainability is really our buzz word… and we have not taken out one loan as a city to pay for this investment,” he said.
Four weeks of international football have acted as a catalyst for a whole range of major infrastructure projects in Durban. Some, like the stadium, are more or less finished.
Others, like the new sea-front park will probably keep the bulldozers busy right up to the last minute.
Mr Sutcliffe, a well-connected member of the ruling party, the ANC, said the World Cup had enabled the city to get a new airport “probably five years early,” and he listed a string of other benefits, including an upgraded road system, an overhaul of public transport, and extensive broadband cabling.
“The world will think differently about Durban,” he said. “They’ll say - my goodness, these are not just hicks from a developing country. They are world class.”
Critics have suggested the huge new stadium will not be sustainable, particularly since the local rugby team, the Sharks, is reluctant to move from their own, more intimate grounds, just across the road.
A local sports reporter, Zayn Nabbi, broadened the complaint.
“We’ve got roads, we’ve got airports and that’s a huge benefit, but those have been improved in affluent areas. Your areas outside the city centre are still left decrepit and derelict, and that’s the sad reality,” he said.
“Expectations are too high,” said Simphiwe Ntshweni, from Durban’s Youth Advisory Centre.
“This is a Fifa event. It will come and go. People are hoping the World Cup will bring real money into their pockets, but the person on the street will find it is not easy to realise those dreams. Come back after July and you’ll see a lot of people have not made money.
“But if you see all the infrastructure that is here now, the roads and public works - those positive things outweigh the negatives.”
Not plain sailing
Cruising off the coast in a sleek white motor boat called Bring it on, marketing executive Trevor Tshuma acknowledged that not every business was going to benefit from the World Cup.
“There will be quite a lot of disappointment, but that’s to be expected - this is a first for Africa, and there’s no yardstick to refer to so certainly there will be quite a lot of losers,” he said.
Mr Tshuma works for a new accommodation management company called Teatro, which has expanded rapidly in the past year by offering tours, rooms, boats and other tourist facilities to visiting fans.
The accommodation industry has been wrestling with issues of over-pricing, accreditation, low tourist numbers and the dominant role of Fifa’s official partner, MATCH Services, but Mr Tshuma said Teatro was “going to make a very nice profit and a good turnover”.
“There were a lot of people who over-inflated room rates, but we’re keeping it realistic.”
More important, Mr Tshuma, stressed, was the long-term impact of the World Cup on Durban.
“A lot of people have the wrong perception. People talk about crime but it’s often exaggerated,” he said. “When people come and realise how safe it is and how affordable things are... it will definitely give a positive impact for tourism in the future.”
All around the centre of Durban, workmen are noisily racing to complete (and in some cases it seems, just starting work on) fan zones, park and ride zones and other World Cup-related infrastructure projects.
Beside one particularly noisy building site, a group of traders selling football shirts and other goods from their stalls seemed uncertain about Fifa’s marketing restrictions around the stadium, and less-than-convinced that June and July would do much for their businesses.
But serving the lunchtime takeaway crowd at her busy curry restaurant nearby, Priscilla Powell was adamant.
“There’s been a lot of road works; they’re getting the country ready and it’s changing for the better; I think we’ll sell to a lot of football fans,” she said with a grin.