* Tabloid reports discredited
* Crime levels very low during World Cup
* Challenge to maintain the improvements
By Barry Moody
JOHANNESBURG, July 12 (Reuters) - A South African newspaper recently published a cartoon showing British tabloid journalists at an "Eat your Words" dinner, tucking into their articles predicting mayhem and murder at the World Cup.
The cartoon by Zapiro, South Africa's most famous cartoonist, was revenge for stories that had predicted everything from a racist bloodbath by machete-wielding gangs to poisonous snakes that could kill entire teams.
The journalists' dessert was shown as Humble Pie.
In the event, the tournament passed off remarkably crime free, with only petty thefts that were mostly solved with impressive speed and just as quickly processed by special World Cup courts handing down often draconian sentences within days.
There have been no tournament-related reports of the murder, carjacking or rape let alone terrorism, that had been predicted.
Security analysts and police confirmed that crime figures were very low in World Cup-related venues although anecdotal reports of lower crime elsewhere cannot be confirmed.
"Crime reporting around the areas where the events took place was at its bare minimum," police spokesman Vishnu Naidoo told Reuters.
Many foreign visitors were baffled by what they found.
"You always hear about how dangerous this country is, but I've had no problems at all," said Tom Flynn, a 19-year-old England fan bungee jumping on the south coast.
South Africa is usually a very violent country with a murder rate five times the international average and also extremely high statistics for rape and robbery.
At 50 murders a day, it has about the same number of murders as the United States with a six times smaller population.
So some concern was understandable and it was one of the factors, together with the global economic crisis, blamed for a significant projected drop in foreign visitors from the original estimate of 450,000. Actual numbers who came are not yet known.
Some South Africans were even reported to have left the country, convinced of violence during the World Cup.
However, negative reporting did not take account of the extraordinary measures that South Africa was taking to prevent a criminal outbreak that would have sabotaged one of its main aims -- the encouragement of future tourism and investment.
Neither did it listen to the constant mantra of World Cup organisers that South Africa had successfully organised 150 international events since the end of apartheid in 1994 and had, they said, written the book on how to provide security.
According to Frans Cronje of the South African Institute of Race Relations, the technique of saturating areas with "boots on the ground" goes back to apartheid-era raids on black townships.
More than 40,000 police were mobilised to guard the World Cup and the police force was increased in general by 55,000. Many South Africans were pleasantly surprised to see police on the beat for the first time in their memory.
"I haven't seen policemen walking the streets ever, and now you walk around shopping centres and there they are," said Cronje.
But all this success and the expectations raised, will create a significant challenge when all the fans go home.
"They have shown they can do it. The question would be, why don't you continue with that?" said Henri Boshoff of the Institute for Security Studies think-tank (ISS).
"It is one thing to provide security for specific areas like fan parks, stadiums, places where tourists are going to be. It is another thing to provide security to all South Africans living in informal settlements, townships, suburbs," said Gareth Newham, head of the ISS Crime and Justice programme.
Experts and government ministers agree that policing alone will not solve crime until its fundamental causes, including an army of unemployed, some of the globe's greatest wealth inequalities and alcohol-fuelled violence are addressed.
"We have always emphasised that the fight against crime in its very nature is social and economic," said Deputy Police Minister Fikile Mbalula.
Newham urged a five-year programme, using the same kind of planning as during the World Cup. "We have the resources, we have the people, we have the technology to do it."
Some point out that sustaining the effort over a longer period will be a much bigger proposition than one intensive month, but senior officials promise improvements will remain.
The Justice Ministry is looking at extending some aspects of the special court system to reduce a crippling legal backlog, including extending court hours.
"The only problem South Africans will have on Monday is withdrawal symptoms," said Mbalula. "Crime will stay down. It is a commitment. The World Cup has enhanced our systems and left us with a great legacy."
Spokesman Naidoo said the major increase of manpower and technology for the World Cup, including CCTV would "tremendously benefit" the police. "We can now be more visible, hence being able to prevent crime more effectively,." he said.
Many South Africans are waiting anxiously to see whether these promises will be met once the World Cup moves on.
(Additional reporting by Jacqueline Bischof; Editing by Jon Bramley)