Football was 'more than just a game' in Apartheid South Africa
The internet over the last week has been abuzz with the news of Nelson Mandela’s life-threatening sickness. Nelson Mandela, as the world knows, was the driving force against racism in South Africa. Looking back on the history of Mandela and South Africa, we find that football played a crucial role in fighting racism and uniting its people, regardless of colour.
The story of football in South Africa is a story of hope, a story of how a common pursuit and love for a game can break the state-sponsored barrier of colour of skin.
Historically, South Africa has never been a country that supported football. Generous grants were given to cricket and rugby union but football was the poor man’s game, or to put it the way the government put it, the ‘black’ man’s game. In the beginning the government simply ignored the game, and later they banned it.
The public was not ready to bow down, and defied the ban by continuing to play the game. In fact, during the late 1980s, football games were a hotbed of political activity in the country. Political gatherings of any kind were banned and football games were the perfect cover for the meetings of African National Congress leaders.
The current South African president Zuma used to come out of hiding to brief his party members under the cover of football games. ANC flags, which were banned by the government, were unfurled boldly during matches. Football was indeed the opium of the masses.
But like everything in Apartheid South Africa, football had been segregated. An all-white league was formed but it was poor in terms of quality and hardly got spectators. Illegal matches between the black and white teams were frequent and it was obvious that the ‘White’ league was inferior and it duly crumbled in 1977.
Football kept countering apartheid and that was most obvious in 1976, when the South African team faced an Argentinian squad in a friendly. Unusually in those times, a squad with both black and white players was named. The South Africans won the game 5-0. The hero of the match was Jomo Sono, a black player who famously played with Pele for the New York Cosmos. Sono scored a hat-trick and showed the pro-white establishment that skill was not dependent on a man’s colour.