Can we reclaim football from below?

The mafia-style control of South African football, from the Premier Soccer League on down, means a dearth of development and enduring loss for the national team.

Photo by Nicolene Olckers on Unsplash.

In Europe, we recently saw mass protests by the supporters of Liverpool, Manchester United and other English Premiership clubs against the proposed European Super League. This action sank the proposed elite League and demonstrated the potential power of supporters, which reached all the way to the inaccessible boardrooms controlling European football.

In South Africa, such action is unimaginable. The famous, popular, and solidarity-based Iwisa Charity Spectacular tournament was killed by the commercial interests of the once-dominant Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. And there was no action by football supporters. The season-opening tournament existed for more than 15 years and participation in it was always based on the popular vote of at least two million football supporters each year determining which four teams competed. The entire proceeds were given to “charity.”

Where there was some kind of mass action was a limited march in early May by Chiefs fans to demand better performance from their team. This is an action that Pirates fans threatened to undertake for the same reasons, but failed to execute.

It is the power of money over football that has led to the decade-long domination of the Premier football League (PSL) by Mamelodi Sundowns. Sundowns are financed from the mining-based profits and wealth held by the family of Patrice Motsepe, whose companies largely pay starvation wages to tens of thousands of mine workers.

This commodification of football can be seen elsewhere too—the capture of TV rights by the Naspers-owned DSTV, the dependence of professional football on sponsorships by capitalist companies, and the control of football clubs by unelected and unaccountable families and private companies.

As implied above, the reality of commodified and elite-controlled football is taken as given and unchangeable by the majority of fans. This hegemonic reality is actually in direct contradiction to what had existed at earlier moments of our history.

My club, Orlando Pirates, was not known as the People’s Club for a trite reason. It was precisely because its supporters attended meetings en masse and held significant weight in the decisions made about the direction of the club. Earlier, the club even had a more community character when the old Orlando Boys Club, from which Pirates originated, was controlled by a community-elected and women-dominated committee.

The same was the case for Moroka Swallows, the early Sundowns, Witbank Black Aces, the defunct Pimville United Brothers and many others. Importantly, this culture of working class control of a club was not the case with Chiefs, which has always centered around the figure of Kaizer Motaung.

The rolling back of popular control of these clubs was often bloody and deadly. The currently  dominant mafia would not tolerate any opposition to its rising control of these clubs. It is a great omission that little has been written or recorded in film about this aspect of South African football history.

The only semblance of fan participation is in the Supporters’ Clubs that leading clubs operate. Through country-wide branches there is limited exercise of supporter power and voice at the most basic level. However, there is little  autonomy and ultimate subordination to the marketing divisions of the actual football  club. Supporters still do not have any say, voice or power in the ownership, control, and administration of the clubs.

The mafia-style control of South African football has led to the disaster that is the national men’s team for more than 15 years now. This failure largely stems from the absence of a broad-based, resourced, dynamic, and innovative football development agenda. Instead, the mafia at the helm uses its power to primitively accumulate wealth, which takes away from bottom-up development.

When the PSL first negotiated TV rights with Supersport in 2007, it decided to pay a R70 million bonus to a three-person committee (Irvin Khoza, Kaizer Motaung and Mato Madlala) that negotiated the R1,6 billion deal. They did this instead of meeting the demand from lower tier clubs to increase the monthly grant from R50,000 to R200,000. This was coupled with another demand to increase voting powers for these clubs from two to five.

The South African Football Association (SAFA) scored a windfall of R685 million for football development from hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament. FIFA transferred this amount into the 2010 FIFA World Cup Legacy Trust which was established by the international organization and SAFA to promote and develop football. The most logical thing was to start at school level.

Despite this windfall, SAFA has never initiated any such grassroots development program. In many townships and rural villages, school football is not supported at all. There are no coach development programs, schools do not have budgets for playing equipment, transport costs to games are self-financed by each school, and school sports grounds are poorly developed. Moreover, SAFA has not publicly accounted for how the FIFA windfall was used. The only reported activity was the R137 million used to build SAFA House next to the famous FNB Stadium in Soweto. Already by 2014, SAFA financial statements confirmed a loss of R55m for that year.

Instead of promoting real bottom-up development, the mafia dangles the false promise of commercialized football as the path to its development. Even university-based clubs are encouraged to secure private sponsorships in the same way as varsity rugby and second- and third-tier and lower division clubs, which have far fewer resources than the premier division. As a result, many of the newly enriched Black Economic Empowerment beneficiaries have sought ownership of these lower tier clubs as a demonstration of their newly arrived status. Some have taken short cuts by buying premier clubs’ statuses. All this perpetuates the domination of commercial logic over broad-based development.

The underdevelopment of women’s football is another symptom of the mafia approach to the game. If women’s football proves to be commercially viable, it is likely that the same mafia will capture it in order to continue with accumulation and not for the development of the women’s game.

Despite the limits of the Supporters’ Clubs, the seed for change in football actually lies in them. They can become an important platform and voice in the necessary struggle to democratize the game and reclaim it from the elites. This agenda can start with the demand for the return of the Charity Tournament, creating institutional space for the role of supporters in the ownership and control of clubs, and the redirecting of resources to lower level football development.

Beyond the clubs, there is much work to do to raise the banner of school football development. This is where teacher trade unions, student organizations and parents need to be better organized around the revival of school sports in general. It is on that basis that they can be an organized voice putting mass pressure on both the state, the football establishment and private companies for the redirection of resources away from the mafia into school sports.

These ideas can only become real with much activist effort and the effective organization of a radical sports transformation agenda in supporters clubs and in school sports. This would promote a more sustainable and democratic foundation, which would, in turn,guarantee quality and success of South Africa’s national teams in the long term.

Further Reading