From Salt River to the sea

When the the Palestinian Men’s National Team played an exhibition match in Cape Town, South Africa, it might as well have been a home game.

Image courtesy of Ron Krabill © 2024.

As the fans streaming toward Athlone Stadium in Cape Town were greeted by vendors selling Palestinian flags, it became clear the match about to take place would be as noteworthy as it was unusual: the Palestinian Men’s National Team, fresh off their surprising success in the AFC Asian Cup (where they had reached the knock-out stages before losing to Qatar) were to play a “South Africa XI” in front of a large crowd. Organized by an ad hoc group calling themselves Football 4 Humanity, the match was the second of two “solidarity matches” held a week apart at Athlone Stadium in the middle of February as a show of support for the Palestinian people in the midst of the genocide in Gaza. 

Those who attended the 2010 World Cup in South Africa will remember that all anyone could talk about was “the vibe” created by that tournament. And the vibe on that Sunday night in February was nothing short of remarkable. The match was equal parts football match, political rally, and community festival. The stadium and its perimeter fencing were bathed in Palestinian flags, as were the overwhelming majority of the fans: keffiyehs, but also hijabs, tracksuits, headbands, umbrellas, dresses, and any other item of clothing imaginable displayed the Palestinian flag. Large signs proclaiming “Red Card Apartheid Israel” were alongside vendors selling samosas and koesisters (a traditional South African pastry, similar to donuts), Palestinian flag earrings, free Palestine t-shirts, and various other football-related trinkets. Neighbors and acquaintances greeted each other in the stands, then chanted and sang freedom songs with gusto while hundreds of Palestinian flags waved throughout the stadium. 

Image courtesy of Lukas Wasserman.

As the match progressed, the football itself was uninspired at best. Both teams struggled to make it out of midfield, and after Palestine took the lead on a glancing header after about a quarter of an hour, neither team threatened the other’s goal very much. Yet the Palestinian players were cheered on like heroes by the local crowd. There was little doubt who the audience had come to see, and it wasn’t South Africa.

As the action on the field became mundane, the crowd showed as much interest in chanting slogans as they did in the match itself, with both children and adults roving the grounds with megaphones, leading freedom chants along with the ever-present wave. The crowd’s enthusiasm for the entire event was contagious.

Image courtesy of Lukas Wasserman.

It was an overwhelming show of love for the Palestinian players and, by proxy, for Palestine itself. This raises all kinds of interesting questions about political, cultural, and social identifications across time and space. Particularly given that Cape Town does not have a large Palestinian diasporic community, these processes of identification by necessity need to be mediated in one form or another. What are those forms of media, and how have they given rise to deep identifications of solidarity between Palestine and South Africa? Or, to pose the question differently—which forms of media may have contributed to identity formation around Palestinian solidarity, and to what extent may other communication networks play a role? 

The South African news media to a large extent have taken an “objective” position with regard to the conflict (i.e., reporting factually on the conflict, the death toll, South Africa’s case at the ICJ, and so forth), and left it to columnists and analysts to represent stronger viewpoints from “both sides.” What role may community radio play, for instance, to provide a space for expressions of solidarity— such as the Islamic radio station Voice of the Cape or progressive online publications like the progressive news site Groundup, whose coverage included an open letter from South African Jews calling for a ceasefire? What role is social media playing in providing alternative public spheres? The distribution of old-school media, such as pamphlets, and the display of placards and banners at the match, further suggest that an investigation of the role of media and communication networks in creating and sustaining communities of solidarity should not be limited to digital or broadcast media. 

Image courtesy of Lukas Wasserman.

What are the various strands of identification, shaped by media and public discourse, that are combining to create this particular nexus of solidarity in the moment? Although Cape Town has a significant Muslim population, it would be a mistake to see religion as the sole nexus of identification. The frequent use of the word “apartheid” on placards and banners around the stadium (e.g., “red-card apartheid Israel”) was a reminder that the solidarity for the Palestinian cause in South Africa is primarily rooted in the experience of racial oppression, dispossession, and violence. The city has also seen various protests against genocide, both large-scale and at community level.

From the standpoint of a human rights advocate, how would one both understand and attempt to replicate that solidarity? While many analysts and politicians have noted the longstanding historical alliances between the South African and Palestinian liberation movements, we don’t think those historical alliances are enough, on their own, to explain the strength of the current solidarity movement in Cape Town or South Africa as a whole. There are other crisscrossing processes of identification at play here, not least of them the religious and racial dynamics of contemporary Cape Town, which still reflect many of the inequalities and exclusions inherited from apartheid. In this regard, it is significant that the match took place not in the modern football stadium built for the 2010 World Cup on the city’s waterfront (in the middle of the tourist paradise), but in the much older stadium in Athlone, part of the city’s Cape Flats, to which its black and “coloured” (in apartheid nomenclature) population was forcibly removed during apartheid. This is still a part of the city where most white Capetonians would very seldom set foot, and is in many respects a world apart from the rich white suburbs or the glitzy tourist attractions on the Atlantic Seaboard where the World Cup stadium is located. The large support for Palestine is also likely to become a conundrum for the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which currently governs the city and whose supporters are generally politically conservative. The city has already come in for criticism for removing public displays of the Palestinian flag on buildings and tourist attractions.

Image courtesy of Lukas Wasserman.

This brings us to our second observation: there were very few white people in the stands at the match. What does this tell us about the complex interplay of mediated identifications around race, class, ethnicity, religion, and nationality that create this kind of passionate support for a team from thousands of miles away, who most of the fans have likely never seen play (even through TV or global streaming) and whose names they had probably never heard before that night? The affective space of a stadium can be a powerful force in shaping collective impressions and identities. What kinds of local solidarity—between the “coloured,” black, and Muslim communities of Cape Town—are emerging in the process of them expressing solidarity with the victims of a “global” war far from home?  While those processes of identification can seem obvious or self-evident in retrospect, we would argue that they are anything but inevitable. What does the passion of the crowd tell us about the ways in which the celebration of freedom on display here was not only that—even momentarily so—of a Palestinian team playing a “home” match, but also of local communities asserting their own freedom, voice, and agency in a democratic South Africa where freedom of assembly and expression is Constitutionally guaranteed (and, it must be noted, enacted much more vigorously around the question of Palestine than what is possible in many of the polarized and shrinking public spheres of the established democracies of the Global North), yet where social and economic inequality remains elusive? And what does it tell us about the ongoing struggles of football to make inroads into white communities in South Africa?

A third observation: What does it mean for a team to play what amounted to a home game, in terms of their reception and support in the stands and the almost rapturous reception they received during the medal ceremony that followed, when they are unable to play a match at home in Palestine? Players based in Palestine often are not able to travel even for away matches; in 2007, Palestine was eliminated from World Cup qualifying because they were forced to forfeit a match due to Israel’s denial of visas for their players to travel to the second leg of a knock-out tie. As a result, Palestine must draw players mostly from the diaspora and play mostly outside their home. What does “solidarity” mean for a team in this situation to be received as heroes in another country, amid a devastating assault, and experience the support of a home team? What are the ways in which solidarity makes this kind of event possible—an undeniably local event with equally undeniable global overtones? 

Image courtesy of Lukas Wasserman.

Finally, the institutional complexities surrounding world football at the match were compelling. Here was an explicitly political event sponsored by the South African Football Association (SAFA), with SAFA President Danny Jordaan present (the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, attended the first match at Athlone alongside Jordaan). Yet SAFA remains affiliated with FIFA and its longstanding support of Israel—which has been granted membership in the European, rather than the Asian, Football federation—in counterpoint to longstanding calls to expel Israel from the organization due to its apartheid policies, which have heightened during the current genocide. While politics may make strange bedfellows, football can bring into high relief the hypocrisies of its organizing structures and their claims of being apolitical. 

The matches in Athlone were not the first examples of football mobilized in solidarity with a liberation struggle. The Algerian national team of the late 1950s and early 1960s and the teams of various contested territories from Puerto Rico to Catalonia to Scotland, and of course Ukraine, have all used football diplomatically to catalyze calls for self-determination. Likewise, football often has been used for “sportswashing”: by the Franco regime of the mid-19th century, the Argentinian junta that hosted the 1978 World Cup and, more recently, the monarchies in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to name just a few examples. 

But South Africa, one of the few nations to be suspended from FIFA during the apartheid era, has a particular contribution to make to the arguments over football, politics, apartheid, and human rights. The sporting, cultural, and political connections between South Africa and Palestine—over time and through media—made possible not only two state-sanctioned matches being played at Athlone stadium, but more importantly, the enthusiasm for those matches among local communities. A Palestinian home match in Cape Town highlights how global geopolitical issues can be expressed in very local ways, and how those expressions in turn can tell us a great deal about the power of solidarity.

Further Reading