Fandom, Mzansi-style

By Liz Timbs | September 30th, 2013 6 Comments

Guest Post by *Liz Timbs

In eMpangeni, a small city of 110,000 people in the sugar-producing area of Zululand, South Africa, my host family, the Khuzwayos, seemed typical of the local football fans I had read and heard so much about before arriving for two months of isiZulu language training. Both my “brothers,” Lindane and Njabulo, played soccer and supported PSL Champions Kaizer Chiefs. Lindane, however, also admitted to being a big Cristiano Ronaldo fan.

When I left eMpangeni for Durban (pop. 3+ million!), I found similar loyalties in my new host family, the Nenes. My brother, Ntuthuko, and my sister’s boyfriend, Mthembeni, were both diehard supporters of Kaizer Chiefs, so I “had to” fall in line with them. I was so proud when I finally bought my amaKhosi jersey, but my sister, Noxolo, was horrified; she emphatically told me that she wouldn’t go out with me in public if I was wearing it . . . but that’s a story for another time.

My other sister, Nothando, is an athlete in her own right, so we spoke often about sports. One evening I started asking her about football and was struck by her statement that she preferred watching European matches, especially La Liga contests, a lot more than the South African PSL, let alone Bafana Bafana, the country’s struggling national team. I must have looked completely shocked when she said this, because Nothando started laughing at me (a fairly common occurrence, to be honest) and then went on to explain that European teams’ play was tighter and more professional than that of South African sides.

“They jika too much, those guys,” Nothando declared. In isiZulu, the verb ukujika literally means “to turn,” but the term has also become shorthand for showboating on the football pitch. South African players, in her opinion, cared far more about showing off than about playing clean, controlled football, so she liked to watch world-class teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid instead.

When I went to Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital of KwaZulu-Natal, to spend time with Izichwe Football Club, I decided to make it a point to ask the players which teams they supported in order to see if Nothando’s opinions would be echoed by other teenagers.

In one of my first interviews, taking care not to ask about a South African team specifically, Asanda told me that he supported Chelsea. He gave a careful, detailed response about their playing style and the specific reasons why he supported the Blues. When I asked him if he had a favorite South African team, his response was less enthusiastic: “I wouldn’t say there is one, but I prefer Orlando Pirates.” Looking back now, I wish I had pushed him on the reasons why, but I had caught him during one of his school breaks and time was short.

When I spoke to the other players on the team, I got largely the same reaction. They would first respond with their favorite European clubs (e.g. Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United), then almost as an afterthought they named a South African team, usually Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates. (One boy was partial to Mamelodi Sundowns, while none supported Maritzburg United).

So what does this tell us about the nature of fandom in South Africa? Maybe nothing terribly revealing given the fairly small sample that I’m pulling from. But taken with the other “evidence” that I gathered over two months it suggests that South African fans have multiple allegiances.

At the Amazulu-Manchester City “Mandela Day” match at Mabhida Stadium, I saw exponentially more people wearing the colors of Manchester United than AmaZulu green. In the market stall where I bought my Chiefs and Bafana Bafana jerseys, there were far more European soccer jerseys available than South African ones.

It seems that the trend is to support European teams first, then the local South African teams. Is this just because of the quality of play, as Nothando Nene told me? Or is it about the accessibility of televised games and the incessant marketing of Messi, Ronaldo, and other global mega stars? Is sport ushering in a new form of colonialism or is there more going on here than meets the eye?

*Liz Timbs is a PhD student in African history at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in the history of health and healing in South Africa; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs


Filed under: Fans


Stefan Szymanski

September 30th, 2013 | 11:15 am    

Hi Liz

I think you might be missing some of the historical ties that link South Africa to English football teams- a link that goes back at least a century- maybe old colonialism, but certainly nothing new.

You’ll find English teams are popular around the world and have been for a long time. Since the English wrote down the rules, created the first competitions, the first leagues and played the first international games, isn’t it reasonable that they should maintain some appeal to the present day? I fear you might be advocating the suppression of my native culture :-)


Nothando Nene

October 1st, 2013 | 6:08 am    

Wow! This is amazing & beautiful & wonderful put together. I am speechless… All I can say right now is I’m glad you have an idea of what I was talking about and I appreciate the fact that you remember every detail of our conversation. But mostly, I miss you so much and i hope I can see you soon so we can continue with our football talk :)

P.S I still need to see your passport photo LOL

Sudesh Singh

October 2nd, 2013 | 4:13 am    

Interesting article, but sadly this is an unfortunate trend in most of Africa and Asia, due to huge media/tv exposure of English and recently other European leagues, much to the detriment in development of Local football.
I guess Stefan above puts it ‘succinctly ‘ when he talks about you ‘advocating the suppression of His Native Culture’…..are we not suppressing local football cultures by imposing, unilaterally, other alien football concepts???? Is this not another form of Colonialism, albeit on a sports front….yes the British gave us the Game in its modern form, although the Game was created in China,but , they have enjoyed little success at International level since, winning the World Cup just once as they failed to embrace modern trends. Just a thought…..


October 2nd, 2013 | 6:21 am    

you are very right the problem replicates itself all over Africa,yes the quality of European football is very high compared to aftican but this has been built over a long time and fully commercialized while in Africa its still evolving. now the airing of European league matches has ensured that Africans don’t go to the stadium to watch their local teams. and while in Europe these matches aren’t aired live in the local areas they are eing played,in Africa we have access to all the epl,lal liga bundesliga matches. at this rate we will never get our teams boosted by local people. If you went to a pub in Kenya when the biggest derby of Kenya between afc leopards and gor mahia is being played and Manchester united is playing crystal palace,95% of the fans will prefer to watch the Manchester/crystal palace match to our local derby

Thabo Dladla

October 3rd, 2013 | 2:50 am    

It is about time that South Africans and Africans in general start focussing on important things. Football needs people to grow. The reality is that very little is done by ordinary South Africans to improve the game. I know that there are many challenges facing people in this country. We need to start having less excusses and more solutions to the problems.

Young people are getting attracted to foreign leagues and clubs mainly because of the quality of football. The style of play is also a major issue. You cannot expect people to waste time watching “skop en donner” football.The talent is there but there is no political will to help this talent reach its full potential.

Live football is still the best to watch. Presently, I would rather watch kids playing in the streets of IMBALI township than attend some PSL football matches at Harry Gwala. I still believe that we have some of the most creative football talent in Southern Africa, the challenge remains developing it to become the best possible football product.

Lastly, thanks for such an honest article. This is the reality of South African situation presently. There are very few young people that support our football. In the near future PSL will not have fans watching football on television. South African football need to change and start realizing that the future both in the field and outside the field is dependant on today’s young people. You treat them well and take care of their footballing needs, they will stay part of local football. The opposite is also true. Unzima Lomthwalo!

[…] to get a grasp on the inner-workings of South African football fandom (originally broached in this post for Football Is Coming […]

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