Ruud Gullit and the Struggle for South African Freedom

When Gullit won the Ballon d’Or in 1987, he dedicated the award to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela; then made a reggae song about Apartheid.

They called Ruud Gullit the Black Tulip, a name that suggested at once both his elegance on the field of play and his identity without. For Gullit was more than just a footballer, he was a symbol, and one that meant a great many things to different people, not just in his native Netherlands. As a footballer, he was one of the greatest: three Dutch Eredivisie titles, three Italian Serie A titles, two European Cups, a Ballon d’Or, and even a European Championship, his country’s first and only major honour, and one delivered under Gullit’s captaincy. To football fans, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, Gullit was a phenomenon, a genius. To some, he was even, in the words of George Best, ‘better than Maradona.’ He was the total footballer.

But, again, Gullit was more than this. It was not for no reason that the late Nelson Mandela praised him as ‘a source of tremendous inspiration for young people, not only in Holland or Europe, but throughout the world.’ More than a footballer, he was a musician (although not anywhere as accomplished in the latter field as he was the former). And more than a musician, he was a voice.

Upon receiving the Ballon d’Or in 1987, Gullit dedicated the award to Madiba: ‘This,’ he told a world in which the anti-apartheid struggle had yet to fully take root, ‘is for Nelson Mandela.’ It was an extraordinary gesture. ‘In Italy,’ he recalled in an interview with The Times, ‘that made a big stir. There wasn’t such an activism about apartheid over there.’ On another occasion, he likened the reaction in Milan to a ‘storm’. The press, he said, did not take too kindly to another footballer talking about politics. For Gullit, though, this was not politics at all. Rather, ‘it was just a human decision.’

And it was a decision for which Mandela and his comrades were always grateful. In 2004, Gullit met with three of Mandela’s Robben Island cellmates. They told him that they ‘couldn’t believe’ what he had done almost 20 years earlier, and were sure at the time that the award would be withdrawn as a result. For these men, after all, ‘injustice was a normal part of life.’

Mandela’s praise for Gullit was even more effusive: ‘Ruud,’ he told him, ‘I have a lot of friends now. When I was on the inside, you were one of the few.’ These were words, said Gullit, which eclipsed even the proudest moments of his football career. And for a player as wonderful and as decorated as he was, well, one can only imagine how great his joy must have been upon hearing them.

Still, just as interesting as the gesture itself is the road towards it. And the vehicle used on Gullit’s journey was not football, as one might expect, but music.

Of course, as a footballer playing in the 1980s and, to a lesser extent, the 1990s, Gullit experienced racism on the field. While at Feyenoord, even his own manager would label him ‘blackie’ after criticising the player’s work rate. (Thijs Libregts, the manager in question, defended himself unconvincingly by claiming that this was only a nickname.) At the same club, during a preseason friendly against Scottish Premier League side, St Mirren, Gullit was racially abused on the pitch for the first time. He recalled it being ‘the saddest night of my life. The Scots booed me because of my colour. I was even spat on.’ In Italy, with Milan, the abuse was sometimes even worse, curva upon curva greeting the presence of Gullit, Rijkaard and co. with monkey chants.

But it was music—reggae music—that was responsible for making Gullit aware of the anti-apartheid struggle: ‘I was into reggae music, and a lot of us sang about Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko. So these people were like icons for me. They fought for a cause that was enormous.’ Thus began Ruud Gullit’s transformation from the Black Tulip to Captain Dread. He had worn dreadlocks since his Haarlem days, since his debut as a 16-year-old libero. It was a core part of his identity: a nod to his Surinamese heritage, certainly, but also to his taste in music. And in 1984, Gullit duly scored a modest hit with ‘Not the Dancing Kind’, a reggae song in which he speaks over a beat:

Say, all you people there
Are there some of you of the dancing kind?
I say
Are there some of you of the dancing kind?
Now sing up!

Marley, he was not.

In 1987, though, the year of his Ballon d’Or triumph, Gullit really was immortalized in song (as if he needed it) by the Dutch reggae band Revelation Time. They released a single, ‘Captain Dread’, to celebrate his historic captaincy of the national team, his love of their genre, and, of course, his dedication to Mandela. It opens as follows:

He runs like lightning
Thunder when he kicks the ball
Don’t try to stop him
Natty dreadlocks go past them all

Captain Dread
Captain dreadlocks at the ball
Captain Dread, natty dread
Bongo natty dreadlocks in full control, yeah

Later in the song, we hear:

He’s the first black captain
Of the national team

And, most tellingly:

He fights against apartheid
And likes to hear reggae music
He fights for equal rights
In Rhodesia, Revelation time!

Much better.

“Captain Dread” by now was in Milan, and around this time became, in no small part due to his musical exploits, a symbol of the Milanese anti-racism movement. As John Foot reveals in Calcio, his masterly history of Italian football, Gullit would appear in concert throughout the city, most notably in the immigrant club, the Zimba. In 1988, he would even team up with the aforementioned band Revelation Time (themselves named after a Max Romeo album) to record a no. 3 single. ‘South Africa’, as its title suggests, is an anti-apartheid song, and a powerful one at that. Here, despite his calling the Ballon d’Or dedication a ‘human’ rather than a political decision, Gullit became expressly political. He played bass and lent his voice to the track, and would perform it wearing a plain black t-shirt with one simple message, in white and in capitals, written upon it: ‘STOP APARTHEID’. The lyrics, meanwhile, owed much to Peter Tosh’s earlier anthem against exploitation, ‘Downpressor Man’. The song went:

You went down in South Africa land long time ago
To eat from their fruits, the silver and gold, yes
You wanted to be a rich, young man
But the worst part of the story is not often told/

‘Cause you fight them (fight them) and you catch them (catch them)
And you put them in chains (put them in chains)
You judge them (judge them) and you kill them (kill them)
With laws that you made (with laws that you made)

South African downpressor man
You better go where you coming from

‘Africa,’ Revelation Time and Ruud Gullit croon, ‘must be free.’

Captain Dread was now more than but a footballer, more than a musician. Here was a man who had endured terrible abuse, yet had become the best player in Europe, if not the world. But here was also a man who spoke and sang about grave injustice, a man who dedicated his greatest personal honour to the imprisoned leader of the anti-apartheid movement—and at a time when it was unfashionable to do so. Here was a symbol. He was not a reggae icon, of course, nor a political one. (Listen to ‘Not the Dancing Kind’ for convincing proof of the former, and see his morally dubious move to manage Terek Grozny, in Chechnya, in the case of the latter.) But he was Captain Dread, and as Captain Dread brought hope to people across the world.

Ruud Gullit’s is a tale of talent on the field, but also, in this instance, a commitment to justice, to ‘what was right’, off it. Nelson Mandela recognised that. Perhaps football fans should, too.

All together now:

Captain Dread
Captain dreadlocks at the ball …

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.