The Apartheid Football Syndrome

By Gemma Mcdonald | August 20th, 2015 1 Comment

DDAFA_1953_Rhodesia
Photo: Durban & District African FA select team, Rhodes Centenary tournament, Salisbury, Rhodesia (1953)

Football is Coming Home is pleased to receive and publish a guest essay by Zipho Dlangalala, a South African fútbologist who has coached players and trained coaches for many years at all levels. He is a teacher by profession. It has been lightly edited for style.


Guest Post by Zipho Dlangalala ([email protected])


KWAZULU-NATAL—All sports are played in, and influenced by, past and present social conditions. This is largely, if not entirely, because sport is played by people who are social beings.

When we see most of our South African players playing the same way, looking like identical midfielders, we should know instantly that we are looking at them with “foreign eyes.” They will always look like that as long as we evaluate them with foreign tools and criteria.

To African eyes, it is those midfield players that should reveal the nature and inclination of our players. Their creativity and desire to care for the ball—the uninhibited attraction to artistic modes of play—are great assets that we should have treasured so that their game exhibits the same attributes found in them naturally, at least before being diluted.

Regrettably, the Apartheid philosophy and its legacy was too strong for most of us. Based on seeing life through Master-Slave, Boss-Subordinate, Superior-Inferior, Rich-Poor, Educated-Illiterate, Advanced-Primitive, civilized-uncivilized relationships, this “baaskap” paradigm has engulfed us. Even when we know it is not desirable, we often find ourselves promoting it, advocating on its behalf through actions more than words.

It makes us feel acceptable and progressive to be seen as “the master.” We do everything and anything to feel accepted and to get approval from those who represent “the master” perspective. It has been engraved in us to look for this approval, otherwise we feel we do not have the capacity to stand by ourselves and achieve success on our own. The desire to be associated with, to be affiliated to, approved by, “the master” is hard to resist for most. It is this prevailing mentality in South Africa that undermined indigenous cultures, languages, restricted people’s movement and freedom to associate, to think, to explore, to design, to invent, to discover.

It is a “total control” approach of life. It attempts to control what people think and learn. Given the slightest opportunity, it dictates LIFE to each and every person who is supposed to be subordinated (and limited) to its wishes and desires.

In a cultural and socio-economic environment shaped by a social hierarchy long based on race, fertile ground exists for past tendencies to endure. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Football under these conditions cannot be sustained, let alone developed.

Looking at football through a particular lens inevitably results in the game looking in a particular manner. Are we using proper African perspectives to look at the game as it is in Africa? Are our views coloured to give us a special feeling? Are we ready to bring something new to world football or are we content to follow established paths and continue to consume what is already in the market? We are entrepreneurs and have skills. We need to develop them and show our own ideas to the world. We need to create something new in our football for the world to sit up and take note.



In the mid-1980s and into the late 1990s, South African football was exposed to a strong influence of foreign coaching concepts. Their impact has lasted for many years and it became harder for the local game to produce the kind of performers we use to have in the 20th century.

The “play-it-simple” concept, for example, has taken over. It stands in contrast to the mentality and nature of African culture; it is eliminating creativity and replacing it with “simplicity,” a form of mediocrity. Surely, football would not be such a global attraction if it were dominated by the “play-it-simple,” concept. The fact that the most skillful players are also the most expensive to sign proves this point. None of the “simple” players stretch club budgets or make headlines.

Furthermore, African culture and more specifically, South African culture, including football, is based on the idea of the “show.” This is visible in all our major events: the opening of Parliament, at weddings, funerals, stadiums, churches, shopping malls, and everywhere eslse. We have style. We are expressive by nature.

This is why our players had (and some still have) nicknames inspired by distinctive actions and styles: Ace, Easy Ways, Dancing Shoes, Sugar Ray, Fire, Yster, Kalamazoo, Ndunakandaba, Juluka, Professor, Wire, Waya wabuya, Lakhiza lakhemezela, Chippaaaa, Richman Die, Nono, Rhooooo, Skheshekheshe, Kayi kapa kaye, Chillies, Scara, Shakes, Killeeeer, Rheeee, Pelé, The Cat, Express, Fetch and Carry, Cutter, Computer, Brains, Mastermind, City Council, Roadblock, Cool Cat, and many, many more.

These names are not derived from one-touch, direct football. Fans invented them as a result of seeing original, creative, innovative, expressive actions by individual players. Spectators created these names to converse with the players while the game was on. It was not possible for the crowd to keep quite or just clap while their heroes were expressing themselves on the field. Each player did so differently and spectators also expressed themselves from the stands.

Every nickname would be called out in a very special way, directed to the characteristics a player showed consistently. A player called Nono (a clean someone in isiZulu), for example, was the one who hardly got himself dirty, more brains than brawn, who kept an immaculately clean kit throughout the game: jersey tucked into the short, socks neatly pulled up. “Fire” was often a winger with lightning speed, very aggressive. As the player was in full flight, the crowd would shout “Fire, Fire” and this would instill fear in the opposing players as he approached. There was a powerful connection between the player (and his actions) and the spectators cheering him on. This created a compatibility which sustained the interest among both the spectators and the players. There was an emotional contract that bound them together.

Clubs too, have formal names as well as nicknames that defined them. For example:

African Wanderers: AbaQulusi, Omacaphuna kusale
AmaZulu: Usuth’olumabhesh’ankone, izingane zikaNkotheni
Bush Bucks: Izinsingizi—Umdak’omnyama olal’ekhwanini
Benoni United: Onogwaja (The Rabbits)
Witbank Black Aces: Amazayoni—Abefundisi
Moroka Swallows: iziNyoni ezibomvu ngenkani
Orlando Pirates: Ezikamagebhula ezagebhul’umhlaba weny’indoda.

These were just some of the expressions of pride, of belonging, and of emotional value that players were expected to live up to and maintain. The erosion or elimination of these values threatened to totally eradicate African values from the game and changed the concept and practice of both play and spectatorship.

Most of us who are deeply engaged in African football do not get excited by well-coordinated moves that have been drilled over time. In fact, the more time we spend on rigid drills, the less interest we have in that activity. (Even a traffic officer might be seen dancing to some form of music while manning the speed camera on a highway, ready to pounce on speeding drivers.) It is our nature and it cannot be replaced by anything else.

This is one reason the most skillful players in South Africa (our Messis, Iniestas, Pirlos, Riberys, Neymars, Modrics, Robbens) have been the ones who have suffered the most. They have been ostracized, victimized for their superior talent in their own country. This has happened because we have always used a foreign yardstick to measure our own abilities. This is the price that we are paying for all the wrong tendencies that were brought about by an apartheid system of punishing the victim, imposing foreign cultures as the norm, and exalting white Europeans as a superior race in all endeavors.

But remember Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, aka Ronaldinho, from Brazil!

Think about José René Higuita Zapata, aka Higuita, the Colombian goalkeeper, and his many heroics (including his “scorpion kick” against England at Wembley). He had the ability to play outside his penalty area as much as he did inside it. He would play combinations, start and support the attack. This he did long before the prohibition on a goalkeeper handling an intentional back pass from a teammate’s foot.

Consider Jose Luis Chilavert (the Paraguayan goalkeeper), who scored many free kicks and penalties for his club and country, including at FIFA World Cups, (remember France 98, Bulgaria?). These two South American goalkeepers redefined their position, expanded its function to what many see today, long before changes in the game demanded it.

I am certain that had these players grown up here in South Africa, none would have accomplished half of what they did (technically and financially). It is even possible they might never have become professional footballers.

Conversely, those who could have reached the summit but happen to have been born here are nowhere near achieving their full potential. This is the same thing that happened with the talents of people who did not fit Apartheid criteria. They could not be pilots. They could not be engineers, nuclear scientists, ship captains, air traffic controllers, town managers, mine bosses, or factory owners. They were systematically ostracized and many ended up blaming themselves for not “making it” in life. Apartheid encouraged “victims” to blame themselves for their own predicament rather than blaming the “perpetrators.”

It is the same in our football. The most talented players are being blamed for their alleged failures rather than the individuals and the process that has eliminated them. The perpetrators are, once again, getting away with “murder.”

The marginalization of innate qualities and the promotion of alien practices ensures that our national strengths are undermined while our weaknesses are exposed. Under Apartheid, African culture was undermined and anything that would suggest it had a place in the bigger scheme of things was put down. It was ridiculed in the same way that expressing oneself on the field is labelled “showboating,” or “township football,” and other derogatory things. People who should be applauding these expressions of sporting prowess and triumph are the ones who vocally, dismiss them. Sadly, some who exhibited these qualities in their playing days occasionally join the chorus of criticism.

That is where the system wins the battle.

Ever wonder whose agenda this is? Who determines what can be performed or not within the Laws of the Game? And why should we please others and not ourselves?

It is very interesting that while these kinds of dismissive labels are gaining momentum in the South African game, those same exceptional individual moves are solving problems at the highest levels of world football and in the most complicated game situations. In many instances, the difference between winning and losing has been decided by intricate, sublime individual actions. Instead, in South Africa we condemn this type of player to “die” young.

That Africans watch so much European football on television reinforces this tendency. 99% of supporters of South African clubs have at least one favorite European club they follow. Many more South Africans do not back a local club, but are very dedicated supporters of football clubs in Europe. This does not happen by chance. It is the consequence of trying hard to match the standards set on foreign soil and wanting to achieve conformity to external criteria. Moreover, most of our young players now aspire to play in Europe. If they simply wanted to play in the top leagues and in top clubs then it would make sense. Regrettably, the quality of club or league does not matter to them. Because Europe represents the ideal, the ultimate, the pinnacle, of life in sport. Given the South African context, this is not surprising.

The same detrimental way of thinking has long used physical appearance, especially height, to predict the ability of young players and the likelihood of their future success. This has been a great disadvantage for the majority of many highly talented players, despite the fact that height is hardly the key determinant, if at all, to football success at the highest level.

The last two World Cups give credence to this assertion. Seven of Spain’s fourteen men who played in their victorious 2010 World Cup final against The Netherlands were no taller than 178cm. (The tallest was Pique at 192cm.) Their Dutch opponents included three no taller than 176cm: Van Bronkhorst (176cm), De Jong (174cm), and Sneijder (170cm). The rest were between 180-197cm. Indeed, Germany lost to Spain in the 2010 semifinal playing only two players shorter than 180cm: Lahm (170cm) and Trochowski (168cm).

In the 2014 FIFA World Cup final in Brazil, nine of Argentina’s fourteen players did not exceed 178cm. The rest were between 184cm and 192cm. And while the winners, Germany, had only one player under 180cm (Lahm, 170cm), it is ironic that the winning goal was scored by Gotze, the second shortest man in the German side at 176cm. One more example: in the 2015 UEFA Champions League final, Barcelona won with six “short” players on the field: Mascherano (171cm), Alves (175cm), Alba (170cm), Iniesta (170cm), Neymar (175cm) and Messi (169m). So does height really matter?

Height will continue to be a factor among countries with a taller population, like Germany. (Keep in mind that the male population’s average height in South Africa was 169cm and 173cm in Argentina (1998 figures), and estimates in 2010 reported 180cm in Germany, 183cm in The Netherlands, and 175cm in Spain.) It should however, be clear that height is not a key determinant of success.

In South Africa, those who still want to rely on physical size are suffering from “Apartheid Football Syndrome,” which is characterized by technical bankruptcy and an imagined cultural supremacy based on myths and ulterior motives driven, among other things, by parochial self-interest.

Are we any better today? Let’s think of the overarching problem in football as a process in multiple stages. The first stage saw the planting of foreign concepts and their consolidation by self-ascribed “masters.” The second stage saw the assimilation and internalization of the masters’ ways by the “victims.” The third stage featured “victims” of the system rebelling against it. The fourth and final stage is when the “victim” regains himself/herself and establishes a new set of criteria and philosophy of life.

Fortunately, as strange as it may sound, we do have it within us to reverse the process.

To accelerate these processes we need individuals of principle and character. Those human beings who choose to act risk isolation, aggression, and even paying the highest price.

First and foremost we must want to be African.

Once that is done, one must look within. Solutions are there to be discovered, like raw gemstones that must be extracted, cut, and polished to realize their full potential as glittering diamonds.

We already have technical solutions, tools, and criteria for coaching and training that give meaning to our uniquely South African football attributes and natural tendencies, ones that also appeal to our psycho-social make up.

We need to work tirelessly and continuously challenge ourselves to reach our true (not artificial) potential. Only then can we unleash it to achieve success on the global stage. The Sport School of Excellence’s technical approach (not the support units like administration, marketing, ambassadorship), the philosophy behind it, and the specialized expertise of the coaching staff in years past provided local solutions and produced some of the best players and results possible. Beyond the School of Excellence there are one or two more examples that followed a similar philosophy based on distinctive South African attributes that yielded positive outcomes for local football and South Africa’s national teams.

Anything other than this approach to football will keep us in the crowd and prevent South Africa from reaching the podium.

I am an African.

1 Comment

Thabo Dladla

August 20th, 2015 | 10:43 pm    


It is refreshing to see this kind of contribution from a South African football coach. We are told many a times about experts on South African football without a proof of their ideas. It is unfortunate that the present generation of football leaders like many of us have suffered irreparable damage from apartheid. Thinkers like Zipho are seen as “counter-revolutionalist” The further they are kept away from technical corridors of power, the better for anti-change brigade. It would help future generations for the likes of Zipho’s to write books in order to record the history of technical evolution of football in South Africa.I challenge other “experts” to make contributions like this other than cutting and pasting foreign ideas. Thanks Peter for sharing with us.

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