The Associated Press JOHANNESBURG -- There are times you could mistake South Africa for heaven on earth.The place has stunning wildlife, a climate ranging from pleasantly warm in winter to sizzling hot in summer, dramatic coastlines and cities that can be nonstop fun. Its food and wine rank among the best in the world. And in less than a year, it will become the first African nation to host the World Cup, one of the planet's greatest sporting events.Yet an aura of fear hangs over the country.The white minority lives, for the most part, in opulence behind high walls with electrified fences. Much of the black majority lives in townships, crowded and impoverished legacies of apartheid where violent street crime is common.Security has become a major concern for the hundreds of thousands of visitors planning to make the journey next year. Is it safe? Will I be robbed, or worse?The answer is, unfortunately, not simple. Parts of South Africa are certainly dangerous and to be avoided. I received conflicting advice on a daily basis while in South Africa for the Confederations Cup soccer tournament, a warm-up for the 32-nation World Cup next year."Don't worry about going jogging, it's safe. Just don't wear an iPod," was the confusing tip from a young, white South African talking about the safety of the leafy streets in Johannesburg's northern suburbs, for many years the preserve of wealthy whites.Another young white man advised against taking a 10-minute stroll to the local shopping mall from my green and pleasant guest house, protected by a 24-hour guard and high walls like every other house in the city's northern suburbs."And yes, that fencing on top of the wall is electrified. And the current's switched on at night," one guard said.Even the Johannesburg Tourism Company's official map, handed out to journalists and visitors, bears the following advice."Don't drive at night in unfamiliar areas ... the northern suburbs of Johannesburg are easy to drive in and explore. However newcomers should avoiding driving south of Braamfontein into the old city center as it is extremely crowded, making it easy for smash and grab thieves to operate."Help! Where's Braamfontein? And am I south of it?This was the problem facing four British men who flew in to South Africa to watch rugby last week, hired a car at Johannesburg airport and headed off for the opulent suburb of Sandton, using a satellite navigation system.Unfortunately, they ended up in southern Johannesburg and found themselves robbed at gunpoint.But would those four men have been any safer if they'd wandered into parts of any major city? Probably not. Also, they were four of 15,000 rugby fans currently enjoying the time of their lives in South Africa.Marcel Desailly, the Ghanaian born ex-captain of the France's soccer team, is a seasoned international traveler. "At the end of the day, Johannesburg is like any big city, London, Paris or New York," he told The Associated Press. "There are ghettos but there's really no reason to be worried. All the places will be secure next year. It's a key moment for Africa."While South Africa's black population is emerging from decades of oppression, the country's white population -- several million strong -- appears to be confused about just what kind of nation they're inhabiting.On a sunny June day, it's just plain crazy to think that the broad streets outside my hotel are dangerous. In the nearby mall, even with beggars plying their trade nearby, trendy restaurants are busy.But after a fine meal in a Kosher vegetarian pizza restaurant, the streets are empty as I walk back to the hotel and I suddenly feel not quite so comfortable. As a journalist, I've covered wars and urban strife and I've never been comfortable with deserted streets. They often conceal danger and ordinary folks keep out of the way.I'm relieved when I bump into a few colleagues also on their way home. Safety here is definitely to be found in numbers.The atmosphere is a reminder that robbers are to be found late at night on the streets in cars, looking for lone victims. But precautions you'd take in any other major city will keep you safe. Police and private security firms are to be seen everywhere, and World Cup organizers will be flooding the streets of cities hosting matches next year.Still, does that mean South African whites are right to be fearful, if not paranoid? Or are they victims of their own mentality, living behind psychological as well as physical walls in the cosseted surroundings they've enjoyed for more than a century?Certainly, South Africa is working furiously to transform itself from the closed and brutal apartheid society it was famous for up to the 1990s, into the garrulous and lively country it wants to be. The chaos of transformation is to be seen everywhere, especially in the frantic buildup to the 2010 World Cup.At Johannesburg's Oliver Tambo Airport, the terminals offer tourists a glimpse of the nation's unrivaled beauty, with images everywhere of elephants and lions, seascapes and mountain ranges. The check-in desks, unfortunately, tell a different story. Baggage still needs to be wrapped in film to keep it from being ransacked and thousands pack into a space meant for a few hundred every time a few international departures coincide.Outside Johannesburg and Cape Town, the fear factor plummets, even though I spotted a sign on the road from Johannesburg to the mining city of Rustenburg reading, "Do not stop: beware carjackings." Small impoverished townships dot the countryside, remnants of blacks being forced out of their homes and into places where they would not be seen by the ruling whites, and crime around these areas is high.But the townships are no longer the hovels they once were. The tin roofs and walls still exist in some places, but more often than not they have been replaced by brick, and transformed into small, but permanent homes offering running water and electricity. Successive governments since apartheid collapsed have pumped vast sums of money into developing the townships.In what was a township but is now the bustling, messy and garrulous city of Soweto a few miles from Johannesburg, the waiter Massi serves me a huge steak served with pap (maize meal), smiling as my female colleague chomps at a large piece of meat. "She is Ugimba, lady who likes to eat a lot," he smiles, paying her the ultimate compliment.Most residents of Soweto, the former home of South African giants Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, make the journey to Johannesburg every day to work, much of the time in businesses run by whites who still appear to hold the purse strings of the economy despite the end of apartheid almost 20 years ago.It's still a common sight to see black house servants walking with little white children, an uncomfortable reminder of South Africa's racist past for some but not, apparently, for the servants' employers.Next June, all South Africans will welcome the world to their nation.For vast majority of visitors, it'll be the holiday of a lifetime. An unhappy few will fall victim to crimes that are a symbol of the country's battle to overcome odds that once looked overwhelming but today don't appear quite so daunting.