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For the love of the game

A Short History of Soccer in South Africa

Six hundred years ago, the rich people in Britain could be seen on weekends in their checked caps and long socks playing their favourite sport: archery. The poor, on the other hand, could not afford the bows and arrows they needed to play this game. So they started playing a new sport.

First, the players organised themselves into teams. Then, they ran up and down a big playing ground trying to kick a ball. When they got the ball, they tried to kick it through the opponents’ goal posts. If one of them succeeded, the whole team would shout: “Ggggooooaaaallllllllll!”

The name of the game? Soccer, of course.

The rich were unhappy about this new game. They said it was rough and “not a gentleman’s sport”. But by the 1800s, archery was a lost sport and soccer had won the hearts and minds of many British working-class people. It quickly spread to other countries where youngsters and “old crocks” alike were quick to learn it.

All over the world, every weekend, thousands of soccer die-hards – often dressed in the colours of their favourite team – fill up the stadiums. Those fans who are too lazy to go to the stadium, spend the afternoon glued to their television sets. Most towns and villages – even the smallest ones ­can boast of their own soccer club. Soccer has become like “an opium of the people”-as the famous German philosopher, Karl Marx, once said about religion.


The game first reached South Africa during the 1860s, at a time when British soldiers were occupying Natal. Soccer was the soldiers’ favourite sport. During their spare time, they organised matches and invited the local population, black and white, to watch. The spectators soon developed an interest in playing themselves. The soldiers encouraged them to form their own teams. By 1880, many of the locals were proudly playing in their own teams.

Soccer soon spread to the other provinces. But it was in the Transvaal, especially in the Witwatersrand area, that soccer rooted itself firmly. In 1886 gold was discovered in Johannesburg. People from the rural areas flocked in their thousands to the Witwatersrand in search of jobs. Some of these people -mainly Indians from Natal­ brought along their knowledge and experience of the game.

The introduction of soccer in the mines was good for the lonely migrant workers. The miners’ weekends were boring and they were frustrated because of the low pay and bad working and living conditions.

Sometimes the workers went to the nearby locations to look for women and to drink beer. But often they killed time by watching soccer.

The mine bosses saw how soccer kept the workers occupied.

“If the workers are busy they won’t have the time to think about their terrible lives,” the mine bosses thought.

So in the 1920s the Chamber of Mines decided to support soccer by giving soccer teams good playing fields on mine property. They recruited star footballers and offered them better jobs at higher wages. Not long after that, the mines formed the Witwatersrand District Native Football Association – also called the Witwatersrand African Football Association (WAFA).


At the same time, the residents of the nearby locations – Doornfontein, Vrededorp and Prospect -“copied” soccer from the mines. Players in one location-yard would form a team and challenge another yard team. Sometimes they played for money. Each team gave its “betting” money to the referee at the beginning of the match. At the end of the game the winning team took all the money as its prize. The treasurers of the teams were usually the “aunties” who supported the teams.

“Laaities” – small boys-also liked playing football in the streets. Sometimes they also played for money like their big brothers. Often they had no proper balls, so they tied together pieces of rags and paper and made a ball.

The locations had no proper sports grounds. So the teams played on the flat tops of mine dumps or used the fields on the mine properties. The Johannesburg municipality realised that the bad conditions and lack of facilities in the locations might lead the residents to revolt one day. These authorities liked the way the Chamber of Mines was keeping its workers busy by promoting football. They wished to do the same with the location residents.

So when WAFA died, the municipality wasted no time – they recruited WAFA’s organiser, Solomon “Snowy” Senaoane, and appointed him director of “Native Recreation” for the locations. In 1929, “Snowy” formed the Johannesburg Bantu Football Association (JBFA) and also organised “coloured” and Indian associations. It was clear that the JBFA and these other bodies were the “babies” of the municipality.

The municipality was hated by many residents who were harassed by its police for all sorts of offences, like “illegal squatting”. So, many of the location clubs refused to join the JBFA. Instead, some of them joined a new body which replaced the dead WAFA. This was the Johannesburg African Football Association (JAFA).


From the beginning, the JBFA and JAFA were rivals and bitter enemies. The labels, “Bantu” and “African” were part of the reason for the rivalry. The “Bantus” were those bodies which were controlled by the municipalities. The “Africans” were supported, not controlled, by the mines and were independent.

The teams in Alexandra Township would not join the JBFA, even though they were under the Johannesburg Municipality. In 1947, when the municipality moved some residents to Moroka in Soweto and the soccer lovers formed a new team called Moroka Swallows – “The Birds” -the old history of resistance against the municipality continued. Once again, even though Moroka was under the Johannesburg Municipality, Swallows joined the JAFA.

But some clubs did join the JBFA, mainly because they had problems getting private playing fields. Orlando Pirates, “The Mighty Bucs”, were one such team. “Bucs” had no place to play except the municipal grounds in Orlando. However, as soon as it could, the team moved across to JAFA.

When the National Party (NP) came into power in 1948, the divisions got worse and soccer became clearly racial. In 1949, the government introduced the Separate Amenities law. This law stopped black teams from using fields in the “white” areas. On the other hand, there were no real facilities in the “black” townships.

In 1956, the government announced a policy which stopped whites and blacks from playing in the same team or against each other. All kinds of sport in the country suffered as a result of this unjust policy … and are still suffering today.


The results of apartheid could also be seen in the national soccer associations that existed from 1933 – until 1950. There were five of them: one for whites, one for “Bantus”; one for “Africans”; one for “coloureds”; and one for Indians. In May 1951 , the last three met in Cape Town and formed a non­racial body, the SA Soccer Federation (SASF). The first two – the Football Association of South Africa (FASA) and the SA Bantu Football Association (SABFA) – were to remain outside the non-racial camp forever.

FASA was accepted in the late 1950s as a member of the world soccer controlling body, the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA). However, FASA’s membership of FIFA did not last long. In 1964 it was kicked out of FIFA because it was racist and did not represent all the soccer associations in the country.

Since then, South Africa has been booted out of many sports bodies and has never been allowed to play any soccer match under FIFA or the Confederation of African Football {CAF) – the soccer controlling body in Africa. Players who came to South Africa in search of “green pastures” were also banned from playing matches under associations affiliated to FIFA. The international soccer bodies demand that one non-racial controlling body should be formed if we want to play in international games again.

Meanwhile, the campaign against apartheid in sports was being fought tirelessly. All praise should go to those anti-apartheid sports organisations who throughout the years fought for an end to racist sport. At the forefront were the SA Sports Association (SASA), the SA Non-racial Olympic Committee (SANROC) and the SA Council on Sport (SACOS). SASA was formed in 1959, SANROC in 1963 and SACOS in 1973. In 1988, the National (Olympic) Sports Congress (NOSC) was formed. One of its aims is to fight racism and to bring about unity in sports organisations.


Despite being kicked out of FIFA, no non-racial umbrella body was ever formed. Professional soccer was no exception. In 1959, white clubs from FASA formed the National Football League (NFL). In 1961, SASF teams formed the non-racial SA Soccer League (SASL). Pirates and Swallows were among the first teams to join the SASL.

It is a well-known secret that in 1962 the “Bantus” formed the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) to try and counter the rise and popularity of the SASL. From the beginning, the NPSL was allowed to use municipal fields freely. But the SASL teams were forced to struggle. The municipalities refused blankly to let them use their fields. By 1966 things were so bad for the SASL teams that even Pirates and Swallows finally gave up and joined the NPSL. Other teams followed them and the SASL died.

The death of the SASL meant that there was no longer a non-racial professional soccer body. So, in 1969, teams which remained in the SASF formed the Federation Professional League (FPL). Like the SASL, the FPL struggled to get fields and the teams never gave up.

Before the SASL died, SABFA and the NPSL were weak and they struggled to attract fans. After Swallows and Pirates joined with their thousands of fans, it became strong. With the help of FASA and the NFL, these organisations slowly found their feet under the leadership of George Thabe, SABFA president and chairperson of the NPSL. By the 1970s, the NPSL had become the most powerful body. When Kaizer Chiefs was formed in 1970, it also joined this body.

One wonders what would have happened had Pirates, Swallows and Chiefs decided to leave the NPSL and joined the Federation League. What happened to the NFL in 1978 and to the NPSL in 1985 is a good answer to the question …

By 1978, white teams could no longer attract many crowds or sponsorship money. The NFL was dying. Its clubs, like Arcadia Shepherds, Highlands Park, Hellenic and Wits University, joined the NPSL. But the NPSL’s strength was shortlived.

In 1985, a quarrel arose between the NPSL and Thabe. The clubs wanted to be given more power in the running of the league. But Thabe refused to give in. These teams broke away and formed the present National Soccer League {NSL). Pirates, Swallows, Chiefs – in fact, all the big clubs-joined the NSL. The sponsors followed them without delay. Today, of the three bodies – NPSL, FPL and NSL – the NSL is the strongest and together with its amateur body, the SA Soccer Association, has most of the sponsors on its side.


South African soccer has travelled a long way from the 1880s to where it is now. In spite of all the divisions and isolation we have seen, much progress has been made. The standard of soccer in this country compares well to other African countries. Our facilities have also improved a lot.

The recent visit of SANROC’s Sam Ramsammy holds good promises for our entry into world soccer. Ramsammy will report the findings of his trip to the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA).

Since it was formed two years ago, the NOSC has been holding talks aimed at uniting all the soccer bodies under one national, non-racial body. In September this year a united professional body was agreed upon between the NSL and the FPL. As from next year 18 teams from the NSL and six from the FPL will play in one first division league. These are good signs indeed. We hope that the goal of forming one non-racial soccer body will be realised soon so that we can be allowed back into FIFA.

Apartheid has kept us out of world soccer for too long. We have missed a lot in all these years. It is now time that we take our rightful place among the other soccer-playing nations of the world. We are sure to enter world soccer with a big bang!


opium – a drug that comes from the poppy flower. Opium makes people sleepy and dreamy rival – an enemy to counter something – to fight against something


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