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Soccer Africanised

Joe Opio/The New Vision/Twenty Ten

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

Does Bafana Bafana reflect the demographics of the Rainbow Nation?

Put mildly, George Singh must be turning in his grave. Singh was a football enthusiast of Indian descent who sacrificed and spearheaded the struggle to make South African football racism-free in the middle of apartheid. Decades after the irrepressible Singh was banned from the game by irked authorities, he would be chagrined to realize that his struggle to make football multi-racial seems to have backfired, at the expense of his own people.

Since the World Cup started on June 11, the entire country has been united behind its national football team, Bafana Bafana. But even that flood of support fails to blind one to the fact that the South African team is made up almost entirely of black Africans. It’s a state of affairs that has begged the question: Does Bafana Bafana reflect the demographics of the Rainbow Nation when they have no whites, no Indians and a serious under-representation of coloureds in their midst?

Super Naidoo is a South African soccer legend who plied his skills during the dark days of apartheid. A utility player whose burst of acceleration made him comfortable both in defence and attack, Naidoo is saddened by what he refers to as a, “systematic and conscious effort to Africanise local football”.

“It’s funny and ironic because when apartheid was still around, there were many Indian footballers, and excellent ones at that. All these players, though, couldn’t play for South Africa because they didn’t want South Africa readmitted into FIFA until apartheid was dismantled. They used football to fight apartheid so that they could get a chance to represent their nation. However, now that apartheid is no longer here, Indian football has regressed and there’s a numbing lack of representation from people who sacrificed so much for Bafana Bafana.”

Naidoo recalls how, back in the day, many prominent soccer clubs in South Africa like Moonlighters FC, Berea, Maritzburg and Manning Rangers, were of Indian stock. These clubs acted as conveyor belts for local talent and Naidoo struggles to think that the end of apartheid seems to have rung the death knell for such glory. “I could understand this attempt to turn football into a solely African sport if it was only the Africans who suffered and struggled for the love of football under the apartheid era,” he says. “But the fact that we fought alongside each other; the fact that it was the Indians who broke down the racial barriers means we have as much, if not more, right for representation as any other race in Bafana Bafana. But we have been sidelined, more so than any other race.”

Naidoo believes that a diligent look at the representation of Bafana Bafana, and the number of Indians taking part in the game since South Africa was readmitted back into FIFA, confirms his belief. “Initially South African football was all-accommodating,” Naidoo states. “Just look at the South African team that won the 1996 Nations Cup. That team had an almost proportionate mixture Africans, coloureds, Indians and was captained by a white. Now compare that with the current team at the 2010 World Cup and you can see that there has been a systematic and conscious effort to Africanise local football.”

Naidoo’s frustration lies in his conviction that if it wasn’t for the endeavours of Indians like Singh, South African football would never be so established, nor would the country be hosting the World Cup.

Singh, who was born in 1930 in Durban to parents of Indian descent, was a successful Durban lawyer. However, his love for football and keen sense of injustice at the apartheid policy of discrimination, prompted him to see the need to fight for non-racial sport in the country.

He served as the general-secretary of the South African Indian Football Association, which he used as a launch-pad to found the non-racial South African Soccer Federation (SASF).

Singh worked tirelessly in his crusade to see all South African sportspersons playing together and, in 1955, he led a SASF delegation to FIFA that argued for recognition on the basis that the SASF represented 82 per cent of South African football fans, compared to the then-recognized whites-only Football Association of South Africa (FASA) which represented 18 per cent.

That was the start of a campaign that saw FASA suspended in 1961 before being banned thereafter. Singh’s efforts invited the attention of the apartheid government, especially as he spread his gospel of “no normal sport in an abnormal society” outside the confines of football.

Despite institutionalised and targeted harassment by the notorious Special Branch, Singh attacked racism in sport at each and every turn; getting the Davis Cup tennis event stopped from being staged in South Africa and obtaining a Natal Supreme Court ruling that it was not illegal for persons of different race groups to play sports together. For his troubles, the resolute Singh was banned from sport for five years.

Singh succumbed to a lung infection in 1984, seven long years before his vision of a multi-racial South Africa gaining re-admission into FIFA. But for his “excellent contribution” to soccer and to non-racism, non-sexism and justice in sport and society, Singh was posthumously awarded The Silver Order of Ikhamanga, a South African honour granted by the President for achievements in arts, culture, literature, music, journalism, and sports.

Naidoo insists that his award, and the fact that South Africa’s acceptance became complete with the World Cup, should force the current SAFA administration to return to the principles of its forerunners. “SAFA should resist the impulse to turn football into what rugby or cricket used to be before quota systems were instituted. No sport should be a preserve for a particular race in South Africa. Singh and visionaries like him understood this. Sport has the ability to reach across racial boundaries and SAFA should keep the legacy of the men who started it alive.”

Naidoo insists that SAFA’s present policy has actually contributed adversely to the sport that he loves and cherishes. “The team is no longer as diverse and talented as the 1996 one,” he comments. “South Africa is a country of diverse races and SAFA should harness that and produce a team with varied strengths. That’s what 1996 was all about. We harnessed all the skills and talents of these different races to produce an extraordinary team that shocked the world. Now, you have a team of people with similar attributes: pace and power.”

Naidoo is adamant that despite the lack of representation, Indians in Durban and elsewhere still firmly root for Bafana Bafana, their love for the game undiminished. “Indians love football, make no bones about it. There might be no Indians in Bafana Bafana, but as you’ve seen here in Durban, all Indians are 100 per cent behind the team. But how long can this last?” Naidoo mentions cause and effect, arguing that if Indians keep turning up to support Bafana Bafana only to find no player they can readily relate to, that now-firm support may erode with time.

“It’s like that with footballers as well. The same way supporters will withdraw if they can’t associate with the players they are cheering for, so will budding footballers. I mean, many Africans now take up football because they have [Aaron] Mokoena and [Siphiwe] Tshabalala as role models.”

Naidoo then asks: “But what of the Indians who want to be footballers? How will an Indian kid nowadays sustain his ambition to play for Bafana Bafana when there are no Indians on the team? Probably, the last Indian player to represent Bafana Bafana was Zane Moosa in 1996. That was too long ago. The youngsters of today need to see that their ambition can actually be realized. SAFA needs to put structures in place to help lure the multi-racial talent that will form the spine of future Bafana Bafana.”

Naidoo might, admittedly, not be worthy to unlace George Singh’s shoes. But it’s hard not to see Singh making a similar plea had he been around to see his dream of a multi-racial South African football landscape being crushed to dust through a national team that was meant to be its crowning glory.

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