I wrote a long piece on Zola Mahobe, a Soweto businessman who died last December (two weeks after Nelson Mandela) and who is credited with transforming Mamelodi Sundowns. The team is currently one of the “big three” South African football clubs and is owned by Patrice Motsepe, the best example of a postapartheid oligarch: he owns a football club. I had a lot of fun writing this and talking to friends about it. The piece was published on The Far Post, a co-production between travel site Roads and Kingdoms and Sports Illustrated to publish a new feature on global soccer culture every other week until the World Cup in Brazil
Here are the first few paragraphs:
On December 5th of last year, South Africans bade farewell to Nelson Mandela. In general, the new republic’s founding father was remembered as a principled, but pragmatic political leader. Some media coverage, however, reduced him to a one-dimensional figure, at odds with the larger South African struggle. That Mandela advocated armed struggle and formed alliances with communists was downplayed by all sorts of political causes and personalities whose politics Mandela would have opposed while he was alive, but who now claimed him as one of their own.
Mandela was also favorably compared to his former wife, Winnie Madikizela. His time in prison, presented as character-building, was contrasted with her increasing radicalism and criminal actions in the 1980s. Most black South Africans, however, were not scandalized by Mandela’s one-time celebration of violent struggle or his communist leanings, or by Winnie’s complicated, but flawed, legacy, which was formed in a more compromising, violent outside. As Stephen Smith concluded in the London Review of Books recently: “If any one person can stand in for the country, it’s surely Winnie, half ‘mother of the nation’ and half township gangsta, deeply ambiguous, scarred and disfigured by the struggle.” Most South Africans get this full, complicated understanding of their recent history.
Zola Mahobe is another such complicated figure, part gangster, part hero. Mahobe, a legendary soccer club owner in South Africa during the 1980s, died nine days after Mandela. While his death quite rightly did not receive the same attention that Mandela’s did, his life was shaped by many of the same forces. For some, Mahobe was a symptom of what was wrong with South African professional soccer. Others viewed him (and still do) as a brilliant entrepreneur, a sort of Apartheid-era Robin Hood, and a visionary that would help reshape the dimensions of South African soccer.
Keep reading here.