Soweto 1976: the greatest games

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At the height of apartheid, says Simon Kuper, thousands of black South Africans flocked to see 'the best game in the world' and a star who was 'better than Pele'...

It was a commercial on South African TV for something or other. Some boys in a field are picking teams. The setting must be the 1960s, because these are the boys who from the late 1960s through the 1980s would become the country’s footballing legends.

The leader of the boys is a big kid called Jomo (Jomo Sono, later of the New York Cosmos). There’s a boy named Kaizer (Kaizer Motaung, founder of the Kaizer Chiefs), another known as Ace (Ntsoelengoe, who played 11 years in the North American Soccer League).

Finally a tiny white kid called Gary (Bailey of Manchester United, meant to appeal to the white beer drinker) shows up. A black kid shouts in Xhosa, a southern African language: “Don’t pick him, he probably plays like a cow.” But Jomo throws Gary a ball, Gary catches it, and Jomo says, “OK Gary, you can be my goalkeeper.”

To black South Africans these players represent the golden age of their football. It’s what the fans regard as real South African football- the style many of them yearn to show the world at this World Cup.

Along with Nelson Mandela, and the music of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, this peculiar brand of football is probably the proudest product of black South Africa under apartheid. But hardly anyone outside South Africa ever saw it.

This football was played out mostly on Saturdays from about 1970 to 1985 in Orlando Stadium in Soweto, the black township just outside Johannesburg. Almost nothing of those Orlando Saturdays has been preserved. Hardly any of these games were televised, and even the few newspapers that covered them don’t tell the story.

The results and scorers can differ depending on which edition of the same paper you read. (One of the main football reporters of the period was a notorious drunk.) The people who ran South Africa didn’t care about Soweto: the place didn’t even appear on maps of the country.

And as for the people who were at those matches, many died young. The survivors inevitably tell different stories. You really had to be there. Sanza, now a DJ at a Johannesburg radio station, spent dozens of Saturdays of his childhood at Orlando Stadium. He told me how he remembers it.

Derby day in Soweto
It’s a Saturday in early 1976, the day of the Soweto derby: the Kaizer Chiefs against the Orlando Pirates. The Chiefs and Pirates are the biggest teams in South Africa, and they dwarf all others. It’s still that way today: in a survey of fans a couple of years ago, it turned out that South Africa’s best supported team after the the big two was Manchester United.

But in 1976, hardly any black South Africans know about Manchester United. In early 1976, apartheid is still going to last forever. South Africa on the morning of this Soweto derby is not quite the dark side of the moon, or North Korea, but it’s almost as isolated.

In January 1976 South Africa has become the last industrialised country on earth to introduce television – the apartheid government was scared of the device – but still no South African football matches are broadcast. The most that any of today’s fans have glimpsed of foreign football is the odd bit of footage in the “bioscope”, as South Africans call the cinema: a game recorded on 16mm film, shown sometimes years after it was played.

To today’s spectators, Chiefs vs Pirates is football. It’s the best game in the world. And though a visiting European might imagine that little Orlando Stadium with its multicoloured walls and uncovered stands belongs to an amateur club, in black South Africa it is Wembley and the Maracana in one.

The Orlando neighbourhood around the stadium is not so bad, by the standards of black South Africa in 1976. Black people had been forced out of Johannesburg in the 1930s and stuck in Orlando’s little “matchbox” houses, but these are not slums. At one point both Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the future archbishop, lived on the same Orlando street. However, in 1976, Mandela is serving a life sentence in prison on Robben Island. 

The Soweto derby kicks off at 3pm today, but Sanza gets up at six in the morning. He needs to be at Orlando Stadium just after seven, to sell his apples: “If you woke up at 10 to seven the township is empty, man!”

By late morning Sanza’s apples are all gone. Well before kick-off, Orlando Stadium is already packed. Nobody spends a lot of time thinking about what the ground’s official capacity is, but it’s certainly a lot less than the 50,000 who have crammed in today. Some people are sitting on the scoreboard. Outside the gate, drunken men are crying because they cannot get in.

It’s “too full”, says Sanza. “And all the gangsters were there, and even thieves, because all the money is there. It was dangerous. If Pirates lose on the day, it’s hard to get out of the stadium. It’s a dull game without the violence, somehow. All those nicknames: ‘Welcome to the Slaughterhouse’, ‘Welcome to the House of Pain’. As kids we fought other kids even to sell apples. None of that now! That is all out of the window now.”

Life in urban black South Africa is smarter today: Sanza is dredging up his memories over coffee at Nino’s in a mall in what was once white Johannesburg. In Europe, Nino’s would be a tacky rip-off of Starbucks, but here it is glam. A fat grey-haired lady named Dorothy Masuku, a singing legend, walks in and lets Sanza kiss her hand as if we were in some nineteenth-century Café de Paris.

A peculiarity of the Chiefs-Pirates rivalry is that Chiefs are an offshoot of Pirates. The Orlando Pirates are the oldest big club in black South Africa. In 1937, when Orlando was just being settled, the club was founded either in the Leake Hall Boys’ Club or at house number 3799 in Orlando East, depending on whose memories you believe. It seems they named themselves Pirates after seeing the film Sea Hawk starring Errol Flynn.

Chiefs in 1976 are still a new team. The man they are named after, Kaizer Motaung, was a brilliant striker with the Pirates, later got himself to Atlanta Chiefs in the North American Soccer League, and after returning home to South Africa in 1969 joined together with allies who wanted to set up a breakaway club. Whereas the Pirates are something of an old-fashioned working man’s side, known as the “People’s Team”, the Chiefs are “the Phefeni Glamour Boys” or “hippies”.

In the 1970s, writes Peter Alegi, historian of South African football, Chiefs’ fans display “the V peace symbol, Afro hairstyles, colourful broad-collared shirts, and bell-bottom trousers”. Already, in 1976, the Chiefs have almost as many fans as the Pirates, not just all over South Africa but even as far north as Zambia. In the days after this match, some of these fans will devote some energy to finding out the score.

Pirate time
An hour before kick-off, the star of the game, Jomo Sono, a Pirate and son of a Pirate, born in Orlando East, arrives at Orlando Stadium. Earlier today he has visited the Indian market to watch pirated tapes of old FA Cup finals. Now he parks his car outside the ground, takes off his gorgeous snakeskin shoes, and practises kicking balls through tyres. In 1976 Sono is still only 20 years old. His glorious career in the US lies ahead of him. Soon, at the New York Cosmos, he will be understudy to Pele. But many South Africans know he is really the best player on earth.

Sono in his Cosmos pomp

Sometimes this hour before kick-off can be a pretty hairy time. The Pirates are not a brilliantly run club. Occasionally they split into factions. It’s been known to happen that two separate, rival elevens, each calling themselves the Orlando Pirates and dressed in the black-and-white club kit, will show up for kick-off claiming that they alone are the real thing and demanding to play.

Years after this afternoon’s match, a Pirates administrator named China Hlongwane will be stabbed 17 times by rivals on the pitch in front of 30,000 fans. Hlongwane survived the attack (perhaps because he was obese) and later survived an assassination attempt with an automatic assault rifle – only to die soon afterwards of a heart attack, writes Peter Auf der Heyde in his book about African football, Has Anybody Got a Whistle?

But today, thankfully, on the pitch at least, nobody is assassinated. Only one Pirates team shows up. The paid witchdoctors of the two teams take their seat in the stands. Already they have bathed their players in lamb’s blood and carried out their other prematch chores. Their work is done. Witchdoctors are so important – perhaps even more so than players – that they sometimes get lured by rival clubs.

Finally, Jomo Sono plays. In a time when the apartheid state tries to turn all blacks into unskilled labourers, here is a master craftsman. Sanza, who was born to be a DJ even if he first spent years selling ganja, says “When Jomo touches the ball, the entire stadium goes ‘Haaaaa!’ He stood on the ball with his hands raised. When the black man had nothing! Jomo Kenyatta! Because Jomo had a big head, like Kenyatta.” In 1976 Kenyatta is president of Kenya. But black South Africans aren’t allowed to have political representatives, and so heroes like Jomo Sono matter all the more.

Standing on the ball with hands raised was the sort of thing Soweto’s fans loved as much as a goal. It’s part of the game. In 1976, in the days before some evil mind has dreamed up the vuvuzela horn, they still show their approval by singing. 

Keeping goal for Pirates this afternoon is Patson Banda, known as “Kamuzu” because every player on the pitch has a nickname. He too is only just 20 years old, but he’s already a veteran. In 1969 at the age of 13 he became first-choice goalkeeper of the Moroka Swallows. Aged 14 Banda joined Pirates. There he developed a special trick: before a match he would pretend to be injured, but a minute before kick-off he would suddenly run onto the field to replace the appointed goalkeeper.

“That is what you call psychological warfare,” he reminisced decades later. “Most teams feared me. So I would say, ‘This is what I will do today, I will deceive everyone, even my own teammates.’ As soon as I would appear all the fans, whether they were Pirates or Chiefs, would cheer. It was a successful ploy.” Presumably, though, it wore off over time.

The style of play that day in Soweto would strike any observer from 1970s’ England as belonging to a different sport than the football he knew. There are no puddles on the field, no flying tackles, no headers, no screams of “Win it!”

Many of the Chiefs and Pirates players aspire not to score a goal, still less win a tackle, but to do a trick that sends an opposing defender flying the wrong way, and then stand on the ball in triumph, or perhaps, as a flourish, step over it.

Banda says: “We played our own style. Black players are more talented than white. It has been said that white players can’t jump. South African supporters are not