By Barry Moody
NELSPRUIT, South Africa (Reuters) - Mbombela is one of the most atmospheric new stadiums built for next year's World Cup, nestled among the beautiful hills of northeast South Africa and supported by orange pylons that resemble giraffes.
But the almost 1.3 billion rand ($172 million) stadium has been tarnished by a string of scandals, including the murder, apparently by professional hitmen, of a municipal official who blew the whistle on alleged corruption and malpractice.
The stadium has been built just outside Nelspruit, the gateway to South Africa's most famous game park, the Kruger -- hence the giraffes -- in a zone of great beauty, where most of the country's citrus fruit and avocados are grown.
But the multiple controversies over World Cup projects have tainted that beauty. Even the mayor describes them as ugly.
The scandals include a failed attempt by the municipality to buy the stadium land from the Matsafeni community owners for one rand, allegations of irregular tenders, overpayments, conflicts of interest and tax evasion.
An angry high court judge last year blocked the deal, accusing the municipality of being like colonial settlers who tried to buy land for mirrors and shiny buttons. Now the Matsafeni have agreed on a transfer worth almost 9 million rand.
The municipal manager, Joseph Dladla, was suspended early last year after a scathing investigation by a local law firm which alleged his misconduct had brought the municipality close to collapse. His ally, mayor Justice Nsibande, was fired and the municipality placed under external administration.
Municipality speaker Jimmy Mohlala, the leading critic of alleged irregularities, was killed by masked men outside his home in January. No arrests have been made.
Stadium construction, now almost complete, was dogged by repeated labor protests and violent clashes between police and local people angered by failure to build new schools to replace two displaced by the project.
Failures to deliver electricity and water to Mataffin township next to the arena mean that World Cup matches could be played within sight of tin shacks where people live in sordid conditions without piped water or sewers.
Excitement is growing about the World Cup in South Africa, and Nelspruit is decorated with colorful posters for the tournament. But there is no enthusiasm in Mataffin.
"We are not happy the World Cup is coming to South Africa," said Sarah Shabangu, 29, an unemployed mother of three, as she drew water from a dirty bore hole close to pit latrines and shacks within sight of the stadium.
"Only a greedy few corrupt officials and their friends are going to benefit. The people on the ground won't get anything," she told Reuters.
Her friend Khelina Sibuyi, 49, agreed.
"We use this water for drinking, cooking and bathing. The kids get sick and have diarrhoea...ever since they built the stadium we have been hoping for help in getting services but nothing is happening, there is no water or electricity."
Four girls plaiting each others hair under a tree beside a dirt road in Mataffin said they had been off school for two weeks because of a strike over failure to build new classrooms.
Their schools were taken over as offices by stadium builders in 2007 and the children moved into hot temporary classrooms that residents say are converted containers. The girls said air conditioners installed last year worked for only two weeks.
Residents showed Reuters a document signed by provincial officials in September 2008 promising new schools by last July.
Frustration over the failure to keep that promise erupted earlier this month with stone-throwing youths clashing with police on three occasions. A squad car was set on fire.
Residents say the police retaliated by storming into their houses and firing buckshot and rubber bullets. Phumzile Rooi, 23, sat listlessly outside her hut and showed an ugly wound on her leg she said was from a rubber bullet.
Police spokesman Superintendent Malcolm Mokomene said only two policemen and one protester were hurt. He denied officers had stormed into residents' houses.
Asked during an angry township meeting what World Cup fans would think when they saw Mataffin, another resident who asked not to be named said: "They will think they have come to hell."
Differ Mogale, the municipality's 2010 coordinator, acknowledged that the scandals had damaged the city's image. "It does, irrespective of the truthfulness of whatever was said."
But he said none of the allegations had been proven and until they were he was not worried about any impact on the World Cup.
Asked about the schools, he added: "That really concerns us, because we were part of the stakeholders that confirmed the schools should be built."
Construction would be finished by the end of the year while water and electricity supplying the stadium would be extended into Mataffin before the tournament, he said.
But he told Reuters: "This is Africa, we don't have to close certain things because they are ugly."
Nelspruit mayor Lassy Chiwayo said the situation in the township was "very painful...I have to admit that in this instance we have failed our people." He promised construction of new schools would start very shortly.
But many remain sceptical, including human rights lawyer Richard Spoor who helped the Matsafeni remove discredited leaders who agreed the one rand sale, which he said was a corrupt scheme to benefit a few politicians and officials.
"They promised a new school, they promised a new church, they promised many things...every single one of those promises and those undertakings has been broken, they have done nothing," Spoor said.
"It is clear to me now that it is far too late to do anything about Mataffin, so visitors are going to come here and see the slums first hand...it is a pitiful situation."
(Editing by Dave Thompson. To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)