We all recognize soccer for the beautiful game that it is. And for its power to unite a country as in Cote D'Ivoire and inflame passions between countries, in El Salvador and Honduras (The Soccer Wars).
But it is also the one sport that has seen an intimate connection and is intertwined in the struggle against apartheid and South Africa's freedom.
The polarization in the races between the White Afrikaaners and the Blacks, Indians, and the Coloreds was reflected in the choice of sports. Cricket and rugby for the colonials and soccer and boxing for the indigenous. The formation of the Orlando Pirates in the 1930's and in the next decade their rivals, the Moloka Swallows saw the first organized attempts at a soccer league for the blacks. It was a form of escape from the grinding poverty and regular harrassment of the police. The muddy grounds of the squatter camps and a ball, was all you needed. And the migration of thousands of people to the outskirts of Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town looking for jobs provided the audience and the players. The British form of soccer was soon transformed and Africanized by incorporating traditional customs practised by the Zulus, Xhosas, Ndebeles, and the Coloreds. Soccer became a dynamic, protean form of entertainment and social release for them.
The 1950's and 60's saw soccer being thrust into the forefront of apartheid politics. The White colonials made it impossible for the indigent population to secure playing fields. This led to the resistance of many workers to the strict control of their lives through the colonial and capitalist demands of the white overlords with respect to their wages, working hours, and social practices. In 1951 Africans, Coloureds, and Indians came together to form the South African Soccer Federation, which opposed apartheid in sport. 1961 to 1966 saw the rapid expansion of teams under the anti- racist South African Soccer League. Their efforts to isolate the apartheid regime led to the succesful international sports boycott of the world with South Africa from 1961 to 1992 until the fall of apartheid.
With this development, FIFA welcomed South Africa back into world soccer on 3 July 1992. On 7 July 1992, at Durban's King's Park stadium, South Africa played its first official international contest in three decades. An integrated national team, nicknamed Bafana Bafana (Zulu for The Boys'), defeated Cameroon 1-0, thanks to a Doctor Khumalo penalty kick.
The world will see the new South Africa in WC 2010. Implicit in this, is the world's recognition that soccer played a transformative role in ending decades of apartheid rule and providing succour to thousands of people during those dark days.
Dr Peter Alegi writes
For an in depth look at soccer and its role in ending apartheid one should read Dr. Peter Alegi's thought provoking book Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu - Natal Press, 2004).