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.



3 thoughts on “Thicker Than Water: Football and Community-Building in Segregated South Africa

  1. Shingi,
    I love this post! I never understood the idea that “blood is thicker than water” in its usual interpretation, as some of the most loyal people might not be biologically related! A brother or sister by blood has no choice in his/her connection with a sibling, while a “brother” or “sister” in the metaphorical sense often chooses to be loyal and sticks by one’s side, as you mentioned.

    I love how you connected this to the prisoners of Robben Island. Though none of the inhabitants were related biologically (as far as I know), they had a connection built around unfair imprisonment, similar goals, hardships, and loyalty. Much of this solidarity came from their involvement in soccer, as it gave them something to strive for together. Saying that it was a ‘team effort’ is an understatement, as the prisoners went through one challenge after another to create the team. It is quite likely that they bonded more over this act than any two relatives might in an entire lifetime. For example, two biological brothers might not have nearly the same experiences that the prisoners shared!


  2. Really good post I found the video of Kalamazoo very interesting in several respects. He at first sounded so arrogant to me, from the street named after him to his many awards, which be bragged a lot about. I can’t fault him though he made it in the international scene when many could not. When he was talking about how he was first received in Europe I thought about how different it was then Basil’s reception. Basil felt welcomed and part of the group where Kalamazoo felt left out and not taken in. As we have been talking about he was not accepted right away into this community of soccer. He also pointed out for all his fame South Africa hardly recognized him for his accomplishments.
    One of the things I liked about him is he did build a community for himself at home later. He gave out soccer scholarships to boys so that they could have an education along with playing soccer. He gave back. Like many of the Bafana Bafana team of 1996 he felt it was his responsibility to give back to the community he grew up in.
    On Robbins island you are right this community I think held them together both mentally and physically. The community of teams gave these men something that was like home. It became their home away from home. They became brothers like you said in the phrase “blood is thicker then water” this brotherhood community helped to keep them all together and gave them some hope.


  3. I really enjoyed your post! Awesome use of that analogy at the beginning, it was a great introduction to the complex topic of the relationship between soccer and community-building in South Africa that we can all relate to when analyzing such a topic. The power of sport in this instance was less about than the game itself (and all of its technical strategies to win in the most efficient of ways), but rather the sense of community it brought because of the experiences shared by the people playing it and the enjoyment of the sport. I really enjoyed your video of what “marabi football” looks like, as it provided a helpful visual aid to understand the text. It is clear that this style of play was more about enjoying the game to its fullest capacity, putting on a show, and celebrating the coming together of people, rather than the meticulous strategies required to win a game. This style focused more on the beauty of the game rather the outcome of the game.


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