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United by Soccer

Anne Mireille Nzouankeu / Twenty Ten

Associated feature: Unis par le football (French translation), Rainbow Nation (Multimedia feature), Soccer Africanised (English text)

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

A history of South African football from apartheid to hosting the FIFA World Cup.

From 1958 to 1992, South Africa was suspended from international soccer by FIFA, as a sanction against the prevailing racial segregation in the country. Black populations in country nevertheless played the game and used the discipline in the sport to circumvent association bans enforced by the white minority, as well as to maintain ties with militants in exile.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people,” Karl Marx said.

During apartheid, most black people were doubly high. “In addition to church, soccer was the only way for us to stay together. The apartheid regime had banned meetings and associations of black people. However, we used the cover of soccer to hold meetings. The game also allowed us to occasionally leave the country and forget for the space of a few hours, our harsh living conditions,” reveals Tobatsi Jeffrey Sebego, General Secretary of the Sedibeng Soccer Legends (SSL), an association comprising former soccer players who played during the apartheid era.

According to Tobatsi, soccer was primarily played by black people, who did not receive any particular encouragement from their employers at mines, farms and construction sites. They were not averse to it either, as they believed the game was keeping them away from protesting against their living conditions. “While we were busy playing, we did not think of rebelling. Moreover, being with the team, they knew exactly our whereabouts and were assured that we were not elsewhere, planning an uprising”, Tobatsi adds.

During apartheid, each race had its own football league: black people used to play among themselves and so did Indian people. “White people were scarce in soccer. They preferred cricket, and besides, blacks were banned from playing against whites,” says Master Mosibi, who played for the Vaal Professionals from 1970 to 1973.

“We used to play in bad conditions, with neither kits nor facilities, but we were passionate about soccer. In order to travel, we used to club together to pay for our transport. In every tournament, organisers used to give each player six Rands (€0.64) for every win, three Rands (€0.32) for every draw and nothing for a loss,” adds Killer Peter Makintane, also member of the SSL.

South African teams used to play against those from Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland. Tobatsi Jeffrey Sebego explains that these games provided them the opportunity to meet with the anti-apartheid activists in exile in those countries: “Most black people, who were involved in the fight against apartheid were either in prison or in exile. We used our games outside the country to interact with our fellow-countrymen, to update them about their relatives and sometimes forward mail,” he says.

Soccer in prison

Political prisoners on Robben Island, a prison-island off the Cape shores, had also established a football league on the premises. The Makana Football Association (MFA) was established in 1969 by political prisoners detained at Robben Island. The Association used to run soccer leagues abiding by FIFA rules. The game lasted 90 minutes, the pitch and goals had the required official dimensions, players in each team wore the same colours, and supporters wore the colours of their teams.

Prisoners from the African National Congress (ANC) as well as those from the Pan African Congress (PAC) elected their representatives at the MFA. The Association was structured around the federation model, with a president, office members, referees, disciplinary commissions, etc. Jacob Zuma, the current South African President, served, for a long time, as a referee in the organisation.

In July 2007, the official FIFA website published a statement of Tokyo Sexwale, former member of the MFA and current Minister of Housing: “Soccer kept us alive. Everything was forbidden on Robben Island, but we used to smuggle in FIFA rules and regulations. We even had 'professional' referees as well as disciplinary commissions. Teams were built on political affinity. Sometimes, when the PAC was not in the mood, there were no games. However, the MFA was a unifying factor, which transcended political barriers. We realised that it was an important tool for our solidarity, our unity and our collaboration. (…). Everything within the inmates' grasp was used to shape a soccer ball. We used to play with whatever was at our disposal. For the goals, we used fishing nets that had run aground on the island. We were granted our request to collect them on the shores. When I arrived on Robben Island, the MFA was already well established. Following my protests, we were granted permission to have a proper soccer ball. It took 15 years, but Judy (his wife, note of the editor) then managed to provide us with proper kits and even whistles.”

The MFA was bestowed an Honorary Membership of FIFA in July 2007.

From apartheid to the World Cup

In February 1990, Nelson Mandela, the most famous political prisoner of the apartheid era, was released, marking the end of racial segregation, which had prevailed in South Africa for decades.

In 1992, FIFA readmitted the South African football association, after the official suspension in 1964, to the Tokyo congress. Twelve years later, on 15 May 2004, South Africa became the first African country to host the greatest soccer spectacle, as the country's bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup was successful.

The event, generally perceived as beneficial for the country's economy, also acts as a unifying fibre for a nation with deep racial divides. Actually, during Bafana Bafana games, South Africans seem to put aside their racial, cultural and social differences to rally behind their national team. Moreover, the country has a multiracial squad, with black, white and coloured players.

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