The History of South African Football - Part 8

Memba Ben By Memba Ben, 17th Jul 2018 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Sports>Football (Soccer)

The eighth part of a series focusing on the history of South African football. In this installment, we focus on fans and their propensity to act out in a violent manner.

Fans or Fanatics?

When football first aired on South African television in 1981, the sport found a market in people who hadn't had the opportunity to experience the pleasure of attending a match. All the goals, skills, flair, pain and glory was seen by the masses and the game gripped the nation.

Players were elevated from local heroes to national celebrities (past players have spoken on how they could go anywhere in the country and instantaneously be flocked by people) and following a team was a passion. While once upon a time, only people in Gauteng knew what Kaizer Chiefs is, you could nowadays find a fan of the club anywhere within Sub-Saharan Africa. More to the point; because of television, fandom and rivalries grew to a national level. Back in the day, the Soweto Derby was a provincial spectacle. Nowadays, it’s a national event with a lot of emotional investment.

Football has always been competitive and that extends beyond the players and clubs to the fans. In the same way that clubs compete for trophies and the best talent, players compete for individual accolades and glory while the fans compete for bragging rights.

For some, support comes from the fact that the team represents your hometown. For others, it could be a player you admire plays for a club so you follow that team and for other people, the team’s history, success or play style attracts them so they follow that team. Whatever the reason may be, every fan develops some sort of attachment.

Any Pirates fan could tell you about the Double Treble years (synonymous with Zakes Bantwini's hit song Clap Your Hands) or the sadness they felt when they heard about the deaths of Lesley "Slow Poison" Manyathela and Senzo Meyiwa just like Chiefs fans could tell you about Operation Vat Alles or the dull Ernst "Middendraw" Middendorp years.

For many fans (or fanatics if you'd like), these moments of joy and heartache are part and parcel of what makes you a fan. I'd go so far as to say that for many (such as myself), the team is part of your identity and in many ways, represents you.

In a recent study from Oxford University, researchers found that the same psychology can be found between terror cells, gang culture and football fans.

Lead author and Postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University's Centre for Anthropology and Mind, Dr Martha Newson said:

"Our study shows that football hooliganism is not a random behavior. Members of hooligan groups are not necessarily dysfunctional people outside of the football community;violent behavior is almost entirely focused on those regarded as a threat - usually rival fans or sometimes the police".

The critical commentary also finds clear links between the psychology underlying football violence and other extremist activity, such as gang culture and terrorism which is often rooted in a similar feeling of "brotherhood".

"Personal and group identity meld and prompt people to do extreme things. Social bonding and a desire to protect and defend other fans may be one of the main motivations not only for football hooliganism but extremist group behavior in general."

If this is indeed the case, then surely the same would apply to the relationship between a fan and their club.

As you all know, football is a very unpredictable sport and a fans emotions match that volatility. As AC Milan fans would tell you, one moment, your team could be leading in a cup final by three goals at halftime and the next, they could concede three and lose on penalties and the fluctuations of a fan's emotional state to match the game, coupled with the competitiveness can make for a dangerous combination.

South African fans are especially guilty of this.

Most of us understand that at the end of the day, it's just a game but there are always some overzealous fans that take things too far and unfortunately, this isn't a new phenomenon.

In 1983, there was a power struggle within Orlando Pirates and a club official linked with the clubs establishment was stabbed on live television during a match at Ellis Park. In 1991, 41 fans died during a brawl at a Chiefs/Pirates match at Orkney but the most famous (or rather infamous) incident took place in 2001 where 43 fans were killed at (once again) a Chiefs/Pirates match at Ellis Park.

Attempts at reforming safety practices were unsuccessful seeing that football hooliganism in South African football frequently reoccurs with instances like the ref attack at a Chiefs/ Golden Arrows game (Chiefs lost 1-0), the fan riots at the Pirates/Supersport United x2 - Pirates/Sundowns matches (Pirates lost the Sundowns and first Supersport game 6-0 and Supersport were leading the second match 5-1 before it was abandoned due to the fans invading the pitch) , the fans pelting stones at the players during Johann Neeskens final game in charge at Sundowns against Free State Stars(Sundowns lost 2-1) and more recently the Moses Mabhida attacks at the Telkom Knockout semi-final between Chiefs and Free State Stars this past April (Chiefs lost 2-0).

Interestingly enough, most of the instances of footballing hooliganism within the country have involved one of the Big Three (Chiefs, Pirates and Sundowns). Now one could say that it is due to the naturally larger support base they command but Bloemfontein Celtic, a far less successful club with a support base just as large as the Big Three haven't been involved in any sort of reported hooliganism and furthermore, when one takes a look at the other major sports in South Africa (cricket and rugby), there have been no reported cases of fan violence in recent history.

So what gives? What could be driving football fans in South Africa to act out?

According to Dr Nomfundo Mogapi, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Centre of the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, mob mentality and the context of "the psychological architecture" of South African society contributes to football hooliganism in the country.

"The thing about mob mentality is that it happens when there are heightened emotions.

People feel emotionally charged and they reach a certain more heightened state, where the group becomes more important than the individual.

In South Africa we have to also understand mob mentality within the context of what I call the psychological architecture of our society.

There has been a lot of talk of us being a wounded nation. We are still carrying a collective trauma which we have not dealt with whether it's historical or present trauma"

I'm not going to speculate why people who take part in hooliganism act the way they do as I'm no psychologist but as a fan (atic), I can understand what triggers that response.

As I've said earlier; for some fans, the team you support is part of your identity. With all the money and effort you put in, you wish that the team does well and if circumstances beyond the teams control prevent that (such as being outclassed by a better opponent), you accept and you move on.

It’s part of the game.

What fans won't accept are things that are within the clubs control that could hinder the team such as a terrible owner or administration, lazy/entitled/unmotivated players, managers who don't know what they are doing or one who refuses to change things when they aren’t working out and horrible officiating.

My hometown has been blessed with the fortune of having two teams in the ABSA Premiership so we get a lot of football. I devote a lot of time attending most of the home fixtures and watch the away games when they are on broadcast.

After the team gained promotion in 2016, they finished 15th and only avoided the relegation playoffs by the skin of its teeth this past season.

Now, you'd think that with all the time and effort I make to catch the team play, I'd be angry that the club is seemingly regressing but I am realistic about what the club should be striving to achieve (the club was founded in 2007 and its biggest achievement was reaching the semi-finals of the Nedbank Cup seven years ago) and am just happy to experience top flight football.

I can only imagine how fans of big clubs that sacrifice a lot of time and effort by buying season tickets, buying team kits EVERY season (keep in mind that the prices of the Big Threes kits are higher than other teams) and attending all the games across the country ( including preseason friendlies) feel when their team under performs.

But while the anger might be justified, the response isn't.

Incidents of football hooliganism paint South Africa in a negative light and in turn detract on the actual beauty of diski.

Hopefully the league can come up with improved preventative measures to combat hooliganism, clubs can sort out themselves out and provide a platform for fans to voice their displeasure and more importantly, fans can take a step back and remind themselves that like life, football has its ups and downs.

It is after all just a game.

The study can be found at:


Football, History, Soccer, South Africa

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author avatar Memba Ben
A fan's view on the business of football.

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