How Soccer Defeated Apartheid

As South Africa prepares to hosts the World Cup, it is also coming face to face with its own history.

Imagine an alternate reality of the United States in the 1960s, where the collective experience of the political elite had been formed in all-black baseball leagues. The country is led by President Jackie Robinson, Vice President Satchel Paige, and Secretary of State Willie Mays. Sounds crazy? Replace baseball with soccer, and you've got South Africa, a country that has given new meaning to "political football."

Much attention has been paid to President Nelson Mandela's role in South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph, captured in the film Invictus. But Sean Jacobs, a Cape Town native, historian, and author, describes that tournament as "a blip" in South Africa's history of racial conflict. "The real story," he says, "is soccer."

And the real story begins several miles from the site of Cape Town's swanky new stadium -- on Robben Island, which will be clearly visible to billions of TV viewers as they tune in to this month's World Cup. The island prison colony was home to thousands of South Africa's political prisoners during the apartheid era. Of the men who played in the prison's soccer league, an astonishing number would go on to become important figures in shaping post-apartheid South Africa.

Their ranks include current President Jacob Zuma, opposition leader and former Defense Minister "Terror" Lekota, Minister of Human Settlements "Tokyo" Sexwale, and Kgalema Motlanthe, who completed former President Thabo Mbeki's second term. Mandela never participated; he watched the early games from an isolation block until the authorities built a wall to obstruct his view. Zuma had the distinction of doubling as a referee. Leave it to a future president to play one weekend and arbitrate the next.

More Than Just a Game, written by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, revealed that Robben Island's inmates had two favorite books from the shelves of the prison library: Karl Marx's Das Kapital, and Denis Howell's Soccer Refereeing. After years of steadfast petitioning, prison authorities finally agreed in 1967 to let the inmates establish their own soccer league, the Makana Football Association. The prisoners spent their weekdays breaking rocks in the quarry, but two hours of every Saturday were reserved for soccer matches. Sunday evening was for talking about the game, Monday to Wednesday for dealing with breaches of rules, and Thursday and Friday for choosing squads and strategizing. The thought process among the players, according to Jacobs, was: "If we can run a league in these extreme conditions, then maybe we can run a country."

The Afrikaner officials of the apartheid regime never embraced soccer. They loved rugby and cricket and funded those sports generously, but saw soccer as a game for Africans. At first, they ignored the sport -- then they began to ban some matches. In April 1963, at the Natalspruit Sports Ground in Johannesburg, authorities locked the gates and left a note saying the day's games had been canceled. Fifteen thousand supporters scaled the gates, carrying an extra pair of goal posts to replace a set that had been removed. The matches went ahead.

The government would later try a new tack, organizing an annual match between black and white players. The plan, however, backfired: It merely emphasized the inequitable and racist nature of the country's political system. The matches did, however, succeed in undermining the apartheid regime in crucial ways. In 1976, the government allowed a mixed-race team to play against a visiting Argentine squad in Johannesburg. Black and white South Africans lined up together on the pitch, though the stands were still segregated. The home team won 5-0, including a hat trick for a then unknown black player named Jomo Sono. When he scored against Argentina, his teammates, black and white, did what teammates have always done: hugged and shook hands. This feel-good victory was overshadowed only a few weeks later, however, when approximately 500 black South Africans were killed in the Soweto uprising -- including Ariel Kgongoane, a prominent player for the Kaizer Chiefs.

Apartheid's opponents quickly seized on the potential of using soccer to rally support and raise funds. The African National Congress (ANC), then a banned underground movement, quickly realized that wherever there was soccer, there was a crowd. Political meetings suffered a blanket ban from 1976 onward, but it was far harder to prevent several members of a political party from sitting together in the stands, amid thousands. Zuma, for instance, would emerge from hiding to attend the matches of the Zulu Royals and confer with other politicians. And it's no coincidence that when Zuma returned from exile in Zambia in 1993, his first residence was at the home of the owner of the Orlando Pirates, one of the largest soccer teams in South Africa.

By the 1980s, activists commonly organized themselves into soccer squads to confound the regime. They could travel easily across international borders, and matches represented a valuable source of money for underground anti-apartheid organizations. Peter Alegi, a historian and author of African Soccerscapes, told me that as early as 1944, the revenue from soccer matches was being handed over to the ANC. Patson Banda, a former player for the Orlando Pirates, remembers one game that was played across the border in Zimbabwe in front of more than 100,000 paying fans. Again, the ANC received the proceeds collected at the gate.

Soccer kept countering apartheid -- white teams knew that to test themselves they had to play against the black teams, and unofficial games became more and more common. The truth became obvious: The white league was second class. Few were surprised at its collapse in 1977. Sono, when he returned from his lucrative stint alongside Pelé in the New York Cosmos, made a very political statement in 1982 apartheid South Africa -- he bought the white soccer powerhouse, Highlands Park.

By the late 1980s, soccer matches were at center stage of the country's rapidly evolving politics. ANC flags, which were still banned, were seen openly in soccer stadiums, a sign of the regime's weakening grip on power. In 1991, South Africa's current soccer federation was founded. During its inaugural meeting, it made the astonishing assertion that its formation was "only natural ... as the sport of soccer had long led the way into breaking the tight grip of racial oppression." It was an audacious statement, even dangerous, as the fall of apartheid was still a more than two years away.

While the national squad arrived with a bang on the international scene, winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996 and qualifying for two World Cups, 2010 finds them with a much weaker squad. Their best players have followed the money to Europe and back at home, the national soccer federation has only been able to organize friendly matches against second-tier countries in the run-up to their day in the sun. The general feeling, according to Mninawa Ntloko, the sports editor of South Africa's Business Day, is that while blacks supported the rugby victory in 1995, the favor has not yet been returned.

Despite South Africa's progress, much work remains to be done before soccer is truly a sport that bridges the country's pernicious racial divide. The national team, Bafana Bafana, or "the Boys" in Zulu, has only one white player. While the Cape Town stadium was built in a white part of town, its heart is still four miles offshore, on Robben Island. The World Cup stands will likely be a portrait of racial diversity, as fans come from far and wide to watch the games, but most matches in South Africa's local leagues are still black-only affairs.

However, with the World Cup, some think the tide might finally be turning. "I'm beginning to see it now. Just in this last month," says Ntloko. "You see white children in Bafana Bafana shirts."

As the 2010 World Cup kicks off, there has been a great deal of speculation about whether the tournament will make South Africa rich. In monetary terms, the answer is resoundingly no. The hosts build the infrastructure, but it is FIFA, soccer's international governing body, that reaps the profits from television and sponsorship rights. Still, the tournament will be invaluable for other, less tangible, reasons. It will provide South Africans with an opportunity to reflect on how far their country has come from the days of apartheid, and the work that remains to be done. Even with apartheid dead and gone, the story of soccer still lies at the heart of South African politics.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images


The Dhaka Solution

While the rest of the world debates climate change, Bangladesh has started living the reality of a warmer, more volatile world.

DHAKA—Earlier this year, a small island in the Bay of Bengal vanished, taking with it a long-running territorial dispute between neighbors India and Bangladesh. The uninhabited sandbar, known variously as South Talpatti and New Moore Island, had been hotly contested since the 1980s. But in March, as the island was submerged by rising sea levels, the dispute quietly resolved itself. The rising waters were "definitely attributable" to climate change, oceanographer Sugata Hazra at India's Jadavpur University, told the Associated Press. "What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking has been resolved by global warming."

While the world's capitals debate the reality and impact of climate change, Bangladesh is already living it. According to recent projections, the sunken island's fate foreshadows low-lying Bangladesh's broader future: to be overcome by rising waters. A 1 meter rise in sea levels could put 17 percent of the country underwater by 2050, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates. (The capital, Dhaka, lies at the center of a flood plain and could be engulfed by even a "slight rise" in sea level, according to another report by U.N.-Habitat.) Meanwhile, on the land that does remain, this country of 162 million will face cyclones, droughts, and floods with increasing frequency and intensity as the effects of climate change begin to bite.

But if the coming temperature rise spells disaster for Bangladesh, it has also transformed the country into the world's biggest experiment in how to minimize the impact of climate change. The reason for preparedness, however, is less intentional than accidental. Bangladesh began preparing for climate change long before the term was ever known -- simply because the country's geography has always subjected it to frequent flooding and cyclones. No wonder this is one of the few countries that has accepted the inevitability of global warming. As Munjurul Hannan Khan, deputy secretary of the Bangladeshi Ministry of Environment and Forests, told a Dhaka conference in April, "For the North[ern Hemisphere], [climate change] will mean a compromise with lifestyle. For us, it's about future survival."

Bangladesh's environmental measures began in the 1970s, when the country started developing saline-resistant varieties of rice and other crops. The country built flood embankments to prevent low-lying arable land from being flooded with salt water. And as a result, grain production rose from 9 million tons in the mid-1970s to 28 million tons today, according to government figures. Today, agriculture in Bangladesh is as "climate proof" as anywhere. And more recently, the British-backed Chars Livelihood Program has funded the construction of flood-resistant infrastructure on Bangladesh's riverine islands, or chars, where some 3.5 million people reside.

Further changes were prompted by a 1991 cyclone that left 140,000 dead. In the wake of disaster, Bangladesh leapt at the opportunity to put in place community-based early-warning systems and emergency evacuation plans that have since saved countless lives. The Bhola Cyclone, for example, killed as many as half a million people in 1970, but the recent Cyclone Sidr was detected in the Bay of Bengal ahead of time, and as many as 2 million people were evacuated before it hit. Death tolls -- cited at 3,447 by one official -- were correspondingly lower. 

With its massive head start, today Bangladesh is embracing its newfound role as a living laboratory. In November, the country is opening an International Center for Climate Change and Development at Dhaka's Independent University. The aim, says the institute's incoming director, Saleemul Huq, is to use Bangladesh as a classroom for researchers and policymakers from around the world, offering short courses (and perhaps later a master's program) to study tactics for adapting to climate change.

Last October, the country became the first to create a National Adaptation Program of Action, a provision recommended by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2005. The proposed 10-year plan includes steps for bolstering infrastructure such as flood embankments and cyclone shelters, strengthening disaster-management systems, improving food security and sanitation in vulnerable areas, and bolstering climate research. Bangladesh has even created a climate change "trust fund" to serve as a repository for donor money, and the country has put in $100 million of its own funds.

Getting these future projects off the ground may yet face hiccups, not least the country's endemic levels of corruption and a lack of coordination between government agencies. But if the past is any test, Bangladesh will keep on adapting -- by environmental imperative. As Huq told The Diplomat, "Bangladesh has always lived on the edge of an apocalypse, but somehow it doesn't ever fall over the edge."