Splitters, shooters and Sowetan pride: Why Kaizer Chiefs vs Orlando Pirates is more than a game

It may only be 40 years old, but the Soweto Derby is one of the fiercest around – and it's no friendly... as Andy Mitten found out for the November 2008 issue of FourFourTwo...

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A policeman bangs his knee as he struggles to climb onto a riot van roof clutching a loud hailer. The pain adds to the frustration in his voice. “Don’t push forward,” he shouts, his words barely audible above the non-stop shrill of vuvuzela horns which create a uniquely African atmosphere.  

Beneath him, a dangerous, swelling crowd of Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates fans crowd around a temporary ticket checkpoint. The policeman’s pleas are ignored. “I don’t know why he speaks in English,” says a concerned news photographer, “these people speak Xhosa.”

I don’t know why he speaks in English, these people speak Xhosa

With just one main checkpoint for 30,000, the crowd pressure continues to build until several crush barriers buckle and twist to the floor. Screaming, frightened fans are pulled free. Others take advantage of the panic and run for the turnstiles, while some blow into instruments which produce a plaintive, unsettling sound like a baby crying.  

“I nearly died!” hollers a hysterical Chiefs fan as she’s helped to her feet by a Pirates supporter, but the majority are unfazed by the crush. Their nonchalance is surprising, especially given that fans of these Sowetan giants, by far the biggest clubs in South Africa, were involved in a stampede which led to the death of 43 fans at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park in 2001. A decade earlier 42 fans died in similar circumstances when the two teams met for a pre-season friendly in Orkney, a provincial town 125 miles from Soweto.

South Africa has the world's second highest homicide rate, you're 40 times more likely to be murdered than in Britain and rape levels are the highest on the planet

It’s no surprise then, that safety and security are the main issue facing South Africa as they prepare to host the 2010 World Cup finals. The country has the second highest homicide rate in the world after Colombia, you are 40 times more likely to be murdered in South Africa than Britain and rape levels are the highest on the planet.

And that’s not all. “I have serious reservations about policing for the 2010 World Cup,” says a security guard on spotting FourFourTwo’s media pass. “Police here react to any problems with pepper spray. Write that.”

Two teams, one country

While rugby is easily the most popular sport among South Africa’s four million whites, football is undoubtedly the major passion of the other 42 million. And such is the popularity of the two biggest teams that the rivalry between them divides the whole nation, not just their home city.

“Chiefs and Pirates can meet anywhere in South Africa and there will be a huge crowd,” says football agent Glynn Binkin. “Both have fans all over the country and that’s why games have been played in Durban or Port Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean, which is at least five hours from Soweto."

We’re in ‘PE’ for tonight’s game, which although only a pre-season friendly, carries a reward for the winners of a game against Manchester United in the final of the Vodacom tournament. With the Nelson Mandela Bay World Cup Stadium in the seedy north end of this city of 740,000 behind schedule, the game is being held in PE’s main rugby stadium in a middle-class white area just a mile from FFT’s hotel on the palm-fringed seafront. Throw in the fact that PE is dubbed ‘the friendly city’ and shanks’s pony seems the most viable transport option for tonight’s game. The hotel receptionist has other ideas.

That’s not a good idea. It’s not safe for a lone white boy

- Hotel receptionist

“Where are you going, Sir?” she asks.
“I’m walking to the football game.”
She looks aghast. “That’s not a good idea. It’s not safe for a lone white boy.”
“It’s ten minutes to walk,” I reassure her. “I’m carrying nothing but my match ticket.”
“It’s not safe,” she insists. “Best to drive and park as close as you can to the stadium.”   

The main road which links the ocean, airport and stadium has been blocked by the ticket check so I drive a little before joining the fans making their way to the match. Some dance and move slowly, others sing and perform a rhythmic, almost hypnotic hopscotch movement which gradually takes them closer to the four giant floodlights. I feel conspicuous as the only white person, but that paranoia will evaporate by kick-off, which is still two hours away. Time for a bit of background.

“This is where the madness happened, that’s where the Chiefs and Pirates fought,” says Lucas Radebe, pointing at Soweto’s vast FNB stadium in the shadow of an old goldmine slagheap – hence the miners’ helmets worn by both sets of fans. The FNB will be renamed ‘Soccer City’ and will host 2010’s opening match and World Cup final. Currently under reconstruction, a new roof and extra tier will boost the capacity from 70,000 to 95,000.

FNB Stadium under construction

Unfortunate trouble

A township of around four million, Soweto sits like a colostomy bag, detached but linked by necessity to the economic hub of nearby Johannesburg. It is where Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have houses on the same street, the only one in the world housing two Nobel Peace Prize winners, and where Radebe grew up.  

The former captain of South Africa was an Orlando Pirates fan who played for Kaizer Chiefs before joining Leeds United in 1994. He was such a hero at Elland Road that the Leeds-supporting band named themselves after Radebe’s former club – though they spelt it ‘Kaiser’.

“Sowetans love football and the rivalry was fierce between the Amakhosi (Chiefs) and the Pirates,” recalls ‘the Chief’. “The build-up would start in the township weeks before the game. Fans would bet illegally on the result and taunt each other.

"The derby even divided families – like mine where I was one of 11. I was Pirates and some of my brothers were Chiefs. I could never watch a game with them. Matches would sometimes be abandoned because of the trouble – though it was more against the authorities than among rival fans.”

At 15, Radebe was sent to Boputhatswana, a black independent homeland in northwest South Africa, by his concerned parents. “There was a lot of violence in Soweto and no proper education,” he explains.

“I was getting into a lot of mischief with my friends and we would take government cars from people. I carried a knife, we’d stop them, tell them to get out and take the car. Then we’d burn or vandalise it or sell it for scrap.”

Radebe sports the Kaizer Chief colours in 1993

Radebe played football as a goalkeeper for “something to do” in Bophuthatswana, later moving to outfield where a Chiefs scout spotted him. Professional terms were offered, but his mother was unconvinced.

“Mum didn’t want me to play football,” says Radebe, “she thought it was an excuse to party and sleep with different women. She eventually gave in on the condition that I studied too.”

NEXT: "This is where I got shot"