By Louise Flanagan

With some "retooling", South African "mercenaries" working in hotspots like Iraq and Afghanistan could be used to provide security at the World Cup in 2010.

University of KwaZulu Natal academic Dr Deane-Peter Baker said thousands of South Africans were working as private security contractors in Iraq and, when the United States government that hired most of them pulled out of that country, they would start coming home.

"The government could rethink strategy in a way to allow them to control, not illegalise, the private security sector," said Baker.

He suggested setting up a register of skills for returnees so that they could be usefully employed.

Baker saw the 2010 World Cup as a "major opportunity" to draw such people in, even if "they'll need some retooling".

"As the money goes, they'll go," said Baker.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad recently said the issue of South Africans in Iraq "continues to be of deep concern to the government".

Pahad said the government did not know how many South Africans were in Iraq.

"Unscientific reports seem to indicate that the numbers could be in the region of 10 000.

"Some of these are South Africans with dual nationalities and many do not travel directly from South Africa to Iraq, so it is very difficult to determine real numbers. We are only aware of South Africans in Iraq when we receive reports of casualties.

"But I can confirm that there are many South Africans in Iraq participating in what they claim to be defence- and security-related activities, and not mercenary activities."

Baker, editor of the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) publication African Security Review, said that when the US pulled out of Iraq, the South African mercenaries would probably return home.

"If that happens, South Africa could well be faced with an influx of returning combat-hardened security personnel, most of them white males with connections to the apartheid-era security forces," Baker wrote in an article on the ISS website.

"Many believe that it is precisely the fear of the possible impact of such people on the stability of South African society that led the South African government to take what is unquestionably one of the most hardline 'anti-mercenary' stances in the international sphere."

He urged the government to "engage constructively" with the mercenaries now before the surge home started.

Baker said many of the 43 000 non-US and non-Iraqi security contractors in Iraq were South African.

He said South African legislation outlawing its citizens from mercenary activity - security work in other countries - had not stopped thousands from taking up security contracts in Iraq.

"The effect of this legislation has simply been to drive the industry underground - but the industry hasn't gone away."

The incentive was the money.

"The money is very good and it's not taxable because it's illegal."

Baker said making the industry illegal did not solve the problem.

The Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, passed in 1998, prohibits the recruiting, using, training or financing of mercenaries in South Africa or elsewhere.

It prohibits offering any foreign military assistance to any other government or group unless the National Conventional Arms Control Committee and the minister of defence have granted permission for this.

A new anti-mercenary law was passed by parliament last year but has not yet been signed into effect by the president.

This is the Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Prohibition and Regulation of Certain Activities in Areas of Armed Conflict Bill.

This also seeks to halt mercenary activity and South African citizens from taking on security work in other countries, except with government permission. When this law is finalised, the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act will be repealed.

"No permissions have ever been given," said Baker.

While it's widely known that South Africans are working in Iraq, no action is being taken against them.

"To my knowledge, no one has been prosecuted for going to Iraq," said Baker.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Panyaza Lesufi confirmed the lack of prosecutions.

"Not to my knowledge. From our side, there's nothing current," Lesufi said.

Little is known about South Africans who have been killed or abducted in Iraq.

In December, four South African men working for Safenet Security Services were abducted in Baghdad. They are still missing and their names have not been released.

Pahad said not much progress had been made on securing their release.

"Our biggest challenge is that we are not in touch with any of the groups that are involved in the violence, so we do not have any access.

"Our ambassador in Jordan, where many Iraqis are gathered, is in touch with the Iraqis to raise the matter to see what we can do. Our ambassador in Kuwait is also trying to signal to the Iraqis to see what the situation is.

"We are also in touch with other governments, the Coalition of the Willing, to see how they can assist us.

"The reality is that not much is forthcoming," according to Pahad.