By Peter Alegi | September 30th, 2013 5 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
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