Thicker Than Water: Football and Community-Building in Segregated South Africa

The old adage ‘Blood is thicker than water” is one of English’s easily understood cliches. Simply put, the people that you are related to biologically (i.e by blood) are more important than everyone else, assumedly represented by water. Simple, right?Not so fast. Some analyses of the origins of the phrase suggest that we have not only misunderstood the saying, we have actually inverted its meaning! (By our current understanding, if blood denotes biology, what would water be a metaphor for?) The analyses explains that the original saying would have gone ‘The Blood of battle/covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” essentially declaring that the people who we go through the toughest times with are more vital to your being than those you’re related to biologically.

I tend to agree. The history of community formation around football among Black South Africans seems to support this argument as well. Laduma describes how, robbed of the way of life they knew so well and forced into dehumanizing living conditions, various communities found solace and administered acts of resistance through football. For Example, after the Native Lands Act of 1913, combined with the continued industrialization of the cities, pushed men away from their rural homes, football soon became a way of recapturing the yesteryear essence. Membership in teams, particularly in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, was initially based on rural hometowns and districts (Alegi, p25.) Also, such pre-colonial practices as ritualistic uses of umuthi and nicknames reminiscent of the stick-fighting era were all ways in which football stood to recreate the community that had been destroyed under oppressive white rule. Even the ostentatious style of play adopted by many of the local teams (dubbed ‘Marabi football’ in Laduma) was alien to the formal, disciplined variety of the game that had been brought to South Africa by the English and almost in seeming defiance to the claim that the local game was a mere transplant of the English game.

Contemporary ‘Marabi’ Football?


Football was not just a way of recreating community: it actually created and redefined societies. Soon, teams were accepting players based not on rural homestead, but on current status (for ex. work, social status, class etc.) These communities would grow to develop their own definitive characteristics, personalities and rites beyond just football. In the case of Orlando Pirates, the team developed a religious dimension (pray-and-play) and a family ethos which manifested itself in paternal respect for leaders such as Andries Mkwanazi and Bethuel Mokgosinyane, and the establishment of such initiatives as the burial society (Alegi, P69.) Not only were people finding community at the football field, people were leaving the football team to instill the values of community cultivated there among the rest of society.

While the opening metaphor of battle can be loosely employed wherever challenging life experiences occur, it is near literal in its application when we discuss the bonds that were formed in the Robben Island league, Matyeni/Makana Football League. The prison had been desired entirely with the purpose of destroying the psyche of men, the mere existence of the league is a triumph! That it went on to run formally with three concurrent tiers, secure uniforms, write well-tailored constitutions, and groom officials puts it on administrative par with some leagues in free and thriving communities. The realization of the game’s profundity in ensuring the prisoners’ survival is what inspired a sense of community even before the first game was played. This realization, that these hardened men ‘derived the same sense of achievement and release from football as any young man’ ( Korr & Close, P48.) enhanced their willingness to invest in making this community happen. Thus, the idea of repeatedly requesting to play football at the risk of going all-weekend without football soon became a perfectly choreographed communal exercise in which the old and ill took no part, and those who sacrificed themselves were under no illusion of what they were getting themselves into.

Brief Interview with Steve ‘Kalamazoo’ Mokone

Once the league actually got underway, and the divisions between the ANC, PAC and other political orientations (or lack thereof) became minimal, whether it was through the non-partisan team Manong FC, or the mere existence of the multi-tiered league, the community of prisoners was morphing in form. When communities develop and become ‘successful’, there are certain personality tropes that always seem to arise. First are the cult heroes from within: These would have included Pro Malepe, who everyone at Robben Island wanted to train with, or the likes of Steve ‘Kalamazoo’ Mokone, the first South African to achieve stardom overseas. Such figures became sources of inspiration for their respective communities. Then there are the communal pillars. These are folks who may or may not be involved in the actual game (or hands-on dealings of the community, in situations where sport is not the central activity), and yet are revered and exert immense influence over the players. Such examples include Mkwanazi in Orlando, and Serdick and ‘Uncle’ Harry Gwala in Robben Island. Thirdly, communities, especially marginalized ones, grow with the essential contribution of allies. Pirates, for example enlisted the help of ‘King of Orlando’ James Mpanza to ‘assert local control over soccer and to obtain playing fields’ (Alegi, P76.) The MFL may have never become what it became without the advocacy of the Red Cross and Helen Suzman, MP of the Progressive Party (Korr & Close, P56.) Finally, there are the ‘converts’: those who are resolutely antagonistic or indifferent to the development of the community at first, and soon begin to realize the value thereof, and begin to warm up. In More than Just a Game, this is best represented by the changing attitudes of the guards towards the prisoners. This formulaic development in communities is not ironclad by any means, but it does provide an interesting insight into the different points at which groups begin to develop into communities.

"We would be better off fighting the system than trying to live in it"- experiencing Robben Island this past summer
“We would be better off fighting the system than trying to live in it”- experiencing Robben Island this past summer


Ultimately, the bonds of brotherhood and camaraderie that grew out of these football communities were, indeed, bound by blood: the thick blood of having suffered dehumanizing indignities, formulated plans to overcome said indignities, and continuing to assert their humanity against all odds- through football.



‘Still no Room at the Inn?’ The Infectious Business of Oppression

The Prize-Giving that Shook the World (1963.)
The Prize-Giving that Shook the World (1963.)

“Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.” (Paulo Freire, 1968)

The first time I came across the story of Papwa’s shameful prize-giving at the 1963 Natal Open (In the Basil D’Oliveira text, p115), my instant reaction was to chuckle. A colleague asked what had amused me so, and I explained to her the context. Unimpressed, she retorted ‘That’s not funny!’  It wasn’t, I agreed. The sheer absurdity of it all is what had triggered my apparent amusement. How do we make sense of that level of hate and prejudice? How does humanity reconcile itself with the whimsical picture of someone who has proved themselves a worthy competitor in the game so cherished not being able to walk into a room for a few seconds to receive his dues?

My colleague then made the astute observation, reminiscent of my opening quote, that “Well, racism doesn’t just hurt the group discriminated against; it hurts the mind of the oppressor too.”

This post discusses how, in addition to the surface oppression of non-whites, Apartheid-era laws and norms had infectious oppressive effects. First, they plagued the mind of the oppressor. Secondly, they cultivated discriminatory practices among the oppressed themselves.

The Oppressor

Nothing is more telling of the troubled mind of an apartheid proponent than the overwhelming arbitrariness and whimsicalness of decision-making. Consider Papwa’s career. The back and forth surrounding which tournaments he could participate in and what resources would be available to him almost seemed to be on a case-by-case basis. How is it that a (supposedly) lowly man whose only claim to prominence is his ability with the golf club can bring the legal culture and system of an entire nation at crossroads? A classic example of this is the debate between members of the United Party and Minister of Information Frank Waring regarding the prize-giving incident, in which they literally argued which brand of Apartheid was ‘better’ and which had been responsible for Papwa’s fate (Nicholson, P96.)

One almost wonders if an Apartheid/prejudiced mindset is akin to delusion. This attitude towards Blacks was reflected in sports too and, as recently as 1994, Rugby legend Uli Schmidt was arguing that ‘it was not natural for them (Blacks) to play rugby, rather they should play soccer’ (Black and Nauright, P.39.) The detachment of the sentiment from reality is overwhelmingly apparent, being that non-whites has been playing rugby for decades before then.Another example of this conflicted mindset that grows in the mind of the oppressive class is exhibited by ‘the pretty twin’s flip-flopping on his stances about Papwa and Apartheid in general. On p 149, Player describes how ‘The African was still tribal’ and practiced ‘witchcraft and primitive magic’ before proceeding to give an all-round endorsement of the Group Areas Act and Apartheid that very much sounded like a page from the Apartheid manifesto (P.150.) A little while later, he especially advocated for Papwa, Arthur Ashe, and ‘realized only too well that petty and unnecessary things were being done in the name of separate development’ (P.175) In Player, we see a consummate sportsperson who, by lottery of birth, ended up on oppressive side of Apartheid and, due to no real apparent convictions of his own (as defined by his reticence and vacillation between opinions) was thrust into the undesirable limelight as the face of Apartheid South Africa. All things considered, he would have just wanted to play golf with the best of them all, Papwa included.

The Best of Both Worlds: Papwa and Gary Player comparing notes
The Best of Both Worlds: Papwa and Gary Player comparing notes

Nothing is more emblematic of a humanity stolen from the oppressor than the cost they are willing to endure to protect a constructed social order. What would have been the legacy of South African golf had Player and Papwa been granted similar amenities and competed unto old age, as well as taken on the rest of the world under the banner of South Africa? What did decades of annexation from FIFA and the Olympics do to the psyche of a nation well capable to compete? Was the English Cricket tour worth canceling over one man? How much did it cost to deliberate on Papwa and D’Oliveira, as well as seek secret agents and the police to watch their every move as if they were high-threat terrorists?

A friend once used the incredible metaphor of someone “burying themselves alive just to prove they can use a shovel…” The image of Apartheid policies in general, and regarding sport in particular evoke this image. Sentiment aside, it is hard to comprehend just what the Apartheid regimes ultimately gained therefrom on the sports field.

The Oppressed

One of the most dangerous aspects of a discriminatory culture is how effectively infectious it is. At a very superficial level, it may appear to be a binary relationship between the malicious oppressors and the powerless oppressed. In reality, society on every level is part and parcel of such a culture as Apartheid. While many argue that the inclination to belong to groups of individuals similar to you and see those groups excel is innate, the manner in which this is achieved is undoubtedly parochial. When you live in a community governed by Apartheid, for example, it is no surprise then that even groups of oppressed people begin to employ Apartheid-style tactics and mentality in their own lives.

For example, when Papwa was in direst need of financial support, he initially received very little support from wealthy South African Indians, who instead spend lots of money towards ‘the Hertzog Monument, a symbol of Afrikaner nationalism’ and to buy ‘a whites-only soccer club’ (Nicholson, P.173.) The culture of Apartheid had, consciously or otherwise, placed intrinsic value in ‘whiteness’ that even non-whites began to cherish at the expense of things within their immediate communities.

Still in Business, albeit not exclusively for Muslims now
Still in Business, albeit not exclusively for Muslims now

Another instance of how Apartheid had infected the non-white community is reflected in Basil D’Oliveira, when he was turned away from joining the Ottoman’s team on account of religious affiliation, despite his talent and proximity to where the team played (Oborne, P.32.) Similarly, a Cape Town Rugby Union, CSRU ‘excluded Muslims until the 1960s’, making a particularly big deal once when a team was found to have a Muslim player. (Black and Nauright, P.49.) The ethos of Apartheid had created a virtual reality in which racial and/or cultural separation was the status quo even for the oppressed classes.

How does all this relate to contemporary South Africa and other societies, the US included? In light of the first section, it is crucial for society to  look deep into its own prejudices and discrimination to see how, more than just the oppressed group, these practices hurt the oppressors too and thus society as a whole. The best people don’t get the opportunities they deserve, billions of dollars are invested in maintaining an oppressive legal and social system, etc. In the second section, it is equally important to realize hateful practices inherited from oppressive regimes- even when that regime is gone. Several African governments right now perpetuate colonial era oppression of minority groups by following the mental blueprint left behind by the colonizers. Across the diaspora, matters of ‘colorism’ (in which being a lighter skinned Black person is valued more than being darker skinned) are all the rage, with people going as far as bleaching their skin in 2015! In certain US communities, there is an uncomfortable yet undeniable disregard of life within and between marginalized racial groups. Perhaps a concerted effort at placing these social ills within the larger context of the oppressive culture within which they were birthed can facilitate candid conversation and help move communities forward.

“Against the Trend of History’: Apartheid’s Distinct History through the Lens of Sport

In lay conversations surrounding the state of a society, sport is often relegated to the margins. Indeed, we are more likely to describe societies in the context of their politics, economy, geography, language, before we discuss the sporting culture thereof. Yet, all things considered, this second-tier status is an unjust reflection on the societal impact of sports even on the grandest scale! For example, the evolution of Black civil rights in the USA owe is in complete without the groundbreaking work of boxer Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos as it is without Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras engaged in a two-week war sparked by the latter’s defeat during a World Cup qualifying match. These two examples just reiterate how sports either provide a window into societal issues or become the very battleground upon which said issues are addressed.

Modern South Africa’s troubled history isn’t exempt from a distinct narrative that can be told through sports. From the onset, the European settlers viewed sport as critical to their ‘civilizing mission.’ Consider, for example, the case of the Orange Free State Football Association, an-all Black South African team that traveled to Britain in 1899 ‘to show the British public how far they are advanced in the beloved game of ‘soccer’ football.’ (Odendaal, P18.) Sport thus became a status symbol in which proximity to ‘whiteness’ in comportment was desirable. It is then no surprise that such prominent figures in the Black community as Sol Plaatjie and Nelson Mandela developed a reputation in cricket and boxing respectively in the earlier part of the 20th century.

Mandela in his earlier incarnations as a heavyweight boxer
Mandela in his earlier incarnations as a heavyweight boxer

That sport had layered socio-political implications is, as we established in the beginning, a phenomenon not particularly unique or definitive to South Africa. What is interesting, however, is how this larger-than-life unifying force became to one of the defining pillars of the Apartheid philosophy. In ‘Sport and Apartheid’ Merrett explains at length how such sport segregation, supported by such legislation as the Group Areas Act and Urban Areas Act, served to patch the divide between the British and the Boer by pushing for a nationalistic White agenda in opposition to the Black Africans (Merrett, p1.) From the implementation of Apartheid in 1948 until 1967, the notion that there would be no racial mixing was reinforced time and again, with one member of parliament going as far as describing the ‘international recognition of non-racial sport as a declaration of war’ Merrett, P2.) So committed was the Apartheid regime to maintaining their racist status qu0- even in sport- that they were willing to risk global isolation! It was not until 1967, under the Vorster regime, that South Africa began to loosen its stance against multi-racialism in sport. If for nothing else, Vorster was committed to reintegrating South Africa into the global community through sports.

Despite progress in this regard, as evidenced by 1971 unveiling of the policy of multi-nationalism in sport as well as mixed football being included in the 1973 South African Games, the rest of the world was not immediately won over. In just about every other sector of society, Apartheid’s ugly policies reigned supreme and the international community reasoned that ‘reform in the area of sport was unacceptable without more fundamental political change’ (Merrett, p7.) Even if sports itself was largely free from the clamping jaws of segregationist policies, it was still indirectly subjected to them through school segregation which meant Black African students still had no access to the educational resources that may have privileged certain sports. As such, the rest of the world held fast to its isolation of South Africa- sports and across the board. It was not until the 1990s, with pending and subsequent independence that the country was reintegrated into the global sporting arena.

And what a reintegration it was! But we'll get to that soon ;)
And what a reintegration it was! But we’ll get to that soon 😉
This map of Africa, cutting out South Africa, circulated on social media after the xenophobic attacks earlier this year. It speaks to the concept of 'South African Exceptionalism
This map of Africa, cutting out South Africa, circulated on social media after the xenophobic attacks earlier this year. It speaks to the concept of ‘South African Exceptionalism

From where we stand, there are several critical take-aways from the readings on Apartheid-era sport. Recently, South Africa has been dogged with xenophobic attacks especially targeting groups of African immigrants. At first glance, this seems bizarre, given the rich heritage of Pan-African nationalism in the country and the efforts of their African neighbors in the fight against apartheid. However, three factors- all touched on in ‘Sport and Apartheid’ play a huge role in these ‘Afrophobic attacks.’ First, Merrett described the segregation as emphasizing ‘the otherness of Black South Africans, but also encouraged their polarization one from another.” Thus, due to seeds planted by Apartheid, Black South Africa inherited a heightened sense of tribalism, and xenophobia against African immigrants is a descendant of aforementioned culture. Secondly, decades of isolation from the international system may have skewed the skewed the citizens’ perception of their place on the international scene, thus creating a sense of South African exceptionalism. I spoke to an uncle who is from Zimbabwe but has lived in South Africa for the past 20 years, and he explained how, on several occasions, Black South Africans would say to him “Wena muAfrican?’ (‘You are an African’- unlike them, South Africans’) Finally, the Apartheid machine that kept Black Africans out of places of opportunity- both literally and figuratively- has largely been maintained, despite the end of Apartheid. Many of the schools remain segregated, the Black Africans still largely live in the townships designated by the Group Areas and Native Land Acts, and the economy remains very much in the hands of the white South Africans. The xenophobic attacks may be misguided, but they have been born largely out of the economic frustration of poor Black South Africans remnant of Apartheid era socio-politics.

it is also worth doing that we draw parallels between segregated South Africa and Jim Crow USA. Indeed, some pundits have described the two countries as ‘long lost cousins’ in their treatment of their Black population (Attrige, 1998, P227.) Let us take a quick moment to break down one short verse from Merrett.

  • ‘the emergence of a Black sporting hero could have challenged and undermined the fundamental beliefs required to sustain apartheid ideology”- similar conversations around white supremacy occurred around Jackie Robinson and Jack Johnson
  • “Sportspersons who questioned white hegemony were labelled agitators and subversives”- Mohammed Ali comes to mind.

Thus, the idea of using sport to enforce racial separation, and the fear of the reverse in the mind of racial perpetrators, are both an unoriginal concept and a ubiquitous one.