The problem with South African football

South Africa failed to qualify for the 2022 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon and has failed to qualify for the World Cup since 2002. What else can their long suffering fans endure?

Image credit Media Club South Africa via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

The drive to professionalize all sports in South Africa has killed off community spirit and the sporting rivalries that built social cohesion in the country. The National Department of Sport, Arts and Recreation lacks the imagination, knowledge, and passion to rebuild sport in this country. They have bought into the apartheid ideal of exclusion and exclusivity.

The March 28, 2021, 2-0 loss to Sudan booted South Africa’s national football team out of the grand African Cup of Nations soccer spectacle to be held in Cameroon in January 2022. South Africa may still not qualify for the FIFA World Cup scheduled for Qatar in 2022. The comparisons between the hapless national soccer team, known as Bafana Bafana, and the national rugby team, the “all-conquering” Springboks who are current world champions, flooded social media. The British and Irish Lions will visit South Africa in July and August and the patriots on social media crowed about the drubbing the Lions will receive at the hands of the Springboks, advising SAFA (the body that controls football) and Bafana Bafana to keep their notebooks handy. Without batting a historical eyelid, patriotic rugby lovers reflected on the “proud history” of Springbok vs British Lions clashes, which started 135 years ago in 1891, despite the fact that most of matches were played by all-white teams representing South Africa.

And therein lies the burning rub: Bafana Bafana has no heritage. Bafana Bafana has no history. They are a new creation, formed out of the euphemistically termed “unity talks” of 1991 and 1992 between the various football bodies that operated under apartheid. Despite being a founder member of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 1953, South African soccer was out in the cold from CAF by 1960 due to the country’s apartheid policies (FIFA suspended South Africa in 1961 and expelled it in 1976).

Springbok rugby, on the other hand, enjoyed the full support of the International Rugby Board (IRB) and tours to and from South Africa to place throughout the apartheid era. As late as 1980, the British Lions toured South Africa. Ireland still toured South Africa in 1981 and England did in 1984. It was also during this period that Errol Tobias, a black (and coloured) rugby player who was a member of Springbok rugby teams throughout the 1980s, was paraded before the world as “proof” of South African Rugby’s dismantling of racism. He made his test debut against Ireland in 1981. The IRB even sanctioned a World XV tour of South Africa to celebrate the white South African Rugby Board’s centenary in 1986. In the world of rugby, the Springboks can proudly reflect on their heritage that dates back to first international contact in 1891, and boast about their 1906 tour of the British Isles; the tour that gave the Springboks their name and gave the world the sad tale of James “Darkie” Peters, a player of West Indian/Jamaican descent, who so offended the Springboks that they refused to take the field against him. Only the intervention of a high ranking politician persuaded Paul Roos and his men to take the field against Devon County.

Professional soccer in South Africa, has always been a shadow child of apartheid sport, playing the National Party game of multinationalism by organizing normal sport in an abnormal society. Long before Nelson Mandela and the ANC pushed for South Africa to be allowed back in international sport in the 1990s, South African soccer gave sport the face of legitimacy by proclaiming integration despite apartheid policy.

In 1982,  two black soccer clubs, Iwisa Kaizer Chiefs and African Wanderers, played each other in the Mainstay Cup final at Ellis Park in front of desegregated bleachers, smearing muck all over the face of the anti-apartheid sports movement. South African soccer, and especially its professional affiliates, never really embraced the non-racial sports movement organized by the South African Council on Sports (SACOS), preferring to court the ideology of multi-nationalism. The latter racial gimmickry served the policies of apartheid more than it served the game of soccer. As it turned out, the game expanded its footprint, but it never grew. At the root of it all was, of course, the money that huge soccer crowds promised. It was a strange situation of apartheid at club level, but integration and “normality” at a professional level.

Soccer in South Africa was insular during the apartheid era, and it remains insular today. The ideological inbreeding at the top level, has seen the shadows of who controls South African soccer deepen and grow ever more foreboding. South African soccer has no answers, and without a history with the worldwide controlling body, it has no future.

Rugby on the other hand has a long history with the worldwide controlling body. World rugby needs the Springboks in order to deflect attention away from their support of the apartheid structures in rugby, and their rejection of the anti-apartheid rugby structures of SACOS. In other words, the IRB—that is those who benefitted from, and who represented racism—were preferred over those who fought racism in and through rugby.

The British Lions are sooncoming, and it would be interesting to see whether any of these powerful athletes will be on bended knee in deferent acknowledgement of the Black Lives Matter movement—a gesture completely devoid of any real significance when the controlling body itself sidesteps its complicity in prolonging the life of apartheid. Of course, there are those who are overjoyed at this prospect, because of the so-called benefits to the country. Well, this country has hosted the 1995 IRB Rugby World Cup, the 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup, and the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, and the benefits have yet to trickle down to the township sports structures.

With the popular social myth that soccer is the “black man’s game” and “rugby is the white man’s game” an almost immutable part of South African folklore, the very visible act of “civilizing the black man” comes through the new missionary project of rugby “transformation.” The British and Irish Lions will face a Springbok team led by one of the new missionary project’s successes: Siya Kolisi. The success of the Springboks at the 2019 World Cup in Japan has managed to blot out the dire situation in the country, and the tour of the British Lions will further obscure the view of the South African reality.

The Springboks represent the facade of national success, while behind the facade you will find the reality of a failed state, ably represented by Bafana Bafana. There can be no normal sport in an abnormal society.

Further Reading

After the World Cup is gone

The book, “Africa’s World Cup,” is a valuable source for thinking more deeply about the meanings and legacies of the 2010 edition of the competition hosted in South Africa.

Bafana Bafana

Football historian Chris Bolsmann just sent me a note:

“… If you want to buy the Bafana [Bafana replica shirt] at a ‘reasonable’ price [in the UK; 35 British pounds it is] you get …