CAPE TOWN, South Africa (Reuters) - Police fired rubber bullets and a stun grenade on Thursday to disperse protesting workers in the latest episode of a dispute that has forced police to take over World Cup stadium security and has embarrassed organisers.
A police spokesman said seven guards were arrested in the illegal protest outside their employer’s offices in Cape Town.
The dispute with local security firm Stallion comes after similar problems during last year’s Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for this tournament.
Police said they had permanently taken over security at four venues; the showpiece Soccer City stadium and Ellis Park in Johannesburg, and the newly-built arenas in Cape Town and Durban. They were already guarding the coastal stadium in Port Elizabeth.
The move, which requires at least 4,000 police officers, follows a wage dispute between stewards, assigned to perform security inside the stadiums by the local organising committee, and Stallion Security.
The tournament’s local organising chief Danny Jordaan has expressed anger at the stewards, many of whom have been paid off for going on strike, but critics say organisers should have seen the dispute coming to avoid the diversion of a 41,000-strong police contingent deployed to protect teams and fans everywhere else.
Security is a major concern at this World Cup because of South Africa’s frighteningly high rates of violent crime — some of the worst outside a war zone.
Police had taken over security in Port Elizabeth before the tournament began because of another wage dispute between stewards and their employers.
Local media reports last year said Stallion pulled out at the last minute from a contract to protect the Confederations Cup — a dress rehearsal for the World Cup — due to a dispute with local organisers over salaries to be paid to guards.
That pullout caused police to be called in to guard some stadiums because smaller security companies deployed at short notice lacked enough personnel and training.
Police chief Bheki Cele has said the use of his force to guard stadiums will not weaken its other duties in protecting the World Cup.
The local organising committee has declined to comment in detail on the dispute except to say it is an internal issue between the stewards and Stallion. The company says it is consulting lawyers.
Police also clashed with protesting stewards early on Monday, firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them.
Meanwhile, in the latest evidence of South Africa’s no-tolerance approach to crime during the World Cup, police said a Nigerian arrested on Sunday had been sentenced to three years jail for holding 30 tournament tickets illegally.
He was tried in one of the special high-speed courts set up for the tournament.