South Africa’s footballing history during apartheid

In recent history, South Africa has been a powerhouse in the African football sphere. Bafana Bafana were one of the best African national teams at the turn of the century, ranking as high as 20th in FIFA’s 2000 World Rankings. South Africa made history in 2010 when they hosted the continent’s first World Cup; and their domestic league is arguably the strongest in Africa. 

However, until 1992, South Africa was banned from playing international football due to apartheid. Rising opposition to apartheid from around the world during the decolonization period in the 1960s saw South Africa exiled from the global stage, in politics and in football. 

While globalization and football combined to strengthen African football in the mid to late 19th century, South Africa was nowhere to be seen. 

At its simplest level, South Africa was banned from playing international football for nearly 30 years. However, football in South Africa during this period is a prime example of politics negatively influencing the development of football in a country. 

Colonial Period

South Africa’s all-white football association (FASA) was formed in 1892. After the Second Boer War when the British Empire defeated the South African Republic in 1913, FASA rejoined the English Football Association. During the early 20th century, along with many English teams, South Africa (represented by British players) went on tour to South America to take on local teams. 

South Africa’s team that toured South America.

In their first match on tour, they battered an Argentine team composed of university players 14-0. In their next game, however, South Africa was embarrassed when they lost 1-0 to Alumni. In losing to the Buenos Aires side, they became the first English team to lose in South America. 

They won their next 10 games, including defeating the Argentina National Team 1-0, to take their record to 11-1. 

As was the case with most of Africa during colonialism, football in South Africa was never really able to develop as the British were more focused on exploiting minerals. African football must have been the last of the British Empire’s concerns. 

CAF Formation & Expulsion

South Africa was one of four African nations to demand representation on FIFA’s executive committee at the 1953 congress. South Africa, along with Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, were admitted onto the committee and founded the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 1956.

They organized the first Africa Cup of Nations in 1957, in which the four members would play each other in a knockout tournament. CAF faced hosting issues (as is commonplace now) when the Suez Crisis forced Egypt to cede hosting to Sudan. 

Ethiopia was to face South Africa while Sudan and Egypt would battle in the other semi-final. South Africa never faced Ethiopia though, as they did not send a team to participate. The reasons for this were disputed at the time, with some sources claiming they were disqualified while others said they voluntarily withdrew.

Blaming the tensions in the region caused by the Suez Crisis, South Africa suggested that the competition should be postponed or cancelled. Sudan refused to adhere to their suggestion, and Ethiopia were handed a walkover win when South Africa did not send a team to participate. 

CAF claimed that South Africa’s withdrawal was to do with their refusal to send a racially-mixed side to the tournament. South Africa’s constitution prohibited racially mixed teams from competitive sport, so they could only send either an all-black side or all-white side to the AFCON.

Egypt defeated Sudan 2-1 before four goals from Mohamed Ad-Diba in the final against Ethiopia saw Egypt win the first ever Africa Cup of Nations in front of 30,000 fans at the packed Municipal Stadium in Khartoum, Sudan. 

International Backlash

At the second CAF conference in 1958 South Africa were formally expelled from CAF. Ironically, the all-white FASA were admitted to FIFA in the same year, although they were given an ultimatum to fall in line with the non-discriminatory regulations of FIFA.

South Africa were suspended by FIFA in 1961, but a few days later Sir Stanley Rous, President of the English FA and a champion of South Africa’s FIFA membership, was elected President of FIFA. Claiming that FIFA should not embroil itself in political matters, Rous reinstated South Africa in 1963. 

The next FIFA conference in 1964 was attended by a large contingent of representatives from African and Asian associations, who successfully advocated that South Africa be suspended again. 

In 1976, the South African government allowed a mixed-race team to play against a visiting Argentina squad in Johannesburg. Black and white South Africans lined up together on the pitch for the first time (although the stands were still segregated). South Africa won 5-0. This victory was overshadowed only a few weeks later, however, when hundreds of black South Africans student protesters were killed by police in the Soweto uprising. In response to the brutality of the uprising, FIFA formally banned South Africa.  

Until 1992, South Africa were banned from participating in every edition of the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup. 

Domestic Game: Black & White

The National Football League, South Africa’s first professional league founded in 1959, followed apartheid rules and only allowed white players to play. For almost 20 years this was the case until trailblazer Vincent Julius broke the color barrier when he appeared for Arcadia Shepherds in 1977.

According to Arcadia chairman Saul Sacks, the move to play Julius was motivated by a combination of football and social factors. “It wasn’t supposed to be a big political gesture, but we knew apartheid was wrong and things had to change. Plus our coach couldn’t find any decent players. I told him to go and look for a black player and he found Vincent.”  

Denis Hands wrote in the Pretoria News after the game that fans at the Caledonian Stadium were “thunderstruck but delighted” at Hands’ appearance. Julius was a hit for the Arcs, showing his skill in the first game before becoming one of the league’s top scorers in the rest of the season.

Following Julius’ breakthrough, other clubs decided to field non-white players. While the decision to play Julius might have been more football-fueled than by politics, it marked a significant change in how race and football were viewed in South Africa. 

Kaizer Chiefs, 1970

From 1971-1977 the National Professional Soccer League was the league where the “black teams” participated, including current PSL giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Just months after Julius broke the race barrier in the NFL, the two leagues merged in 1977 to form a new “non-racial” top flight (also named NPSL). With this move, racism in South African football was drastically reduced, although the “white teams” were allowed to field a maximum of three black players. 

“When the league became multi-racial, teams very slowly began to sprinkle players of different races. But there were still white-owned clubs and black-owned clubs which predominantly only had their spectrum of players,” said Neil Tovey, the captain of South Africa’s first ever national team, in an interview with me. 

“When I was a youth player, all the clubs were segregated. Everything was regionalized, if I could call it that,” Tovey continued. 

In 1985 a new league (National Soccer League) was founded in accordance with anti-apartheid principles. Ten years later when apartheid ended today’s Premier Soccer League was formed. 

Two years before South Africa became democratic, they were allowed to play their first ever match as a national team in 1992. 

International Readmission

Thanks to activism efforts within South Africa and mounting pressure from across the world South Africa’s white leadership moved towards ending apartheid in 1990. 

According to Tovey, football also played a role in easing racial tensions. “Football has been a leader in terms of the racial situation in the country. Sport always brings us together, and football did that in South Africa as it became more popular.”

In 1991, as the apartheid system began to be demolished, a new multi-racial South African Football Association was formed, and admitted to FIFA – finally allowing South Africa to enter the international football scene. 

After spending nearly two decades in international isolation, the South African national team played its first game on 7 July 1992, beating Cameroon 1–0 at Kings Park in Durban. 

Tovey, who captained that team, told me about the feelings that came with captaining his country in their first ever match. “There was more curiosity than nerves amongst the team. We weren’t part of the international mold and then we have our first game against Cameroon, one of the powerhouses of the continent.” 

“We didn’t know how good we were, and it was important for us to play,” Tovey said. The victory over Cameroon might have been an indicator of South Africa’s future success as four years later Tovey captained Bafana Bafana again as they won the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil. 

South Africa reached as high as 16th on the FIFA rankings and were the top ranked African nation at the turn of the millennium. 

While Tovey was grateful to be playing, he knew apartheid had caused him to miss playing time for his country. “I was privileged to captain us. But I started at 30, so I missed a whole decade of my national career. I feel bad for my older brother, who didn’t get to play at all.” 

When I asked Tovey about how South Africa was able to be so dominant at the onset, he scoffed at my insinuation that they did not have good infrastructure or organization. “We have always had really good infrastructure, it was always there. What was missing was the experiences for players. At home we were a formidable side, but we didn’t have the experience to be strong on the road.”


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