Cape Town’s love-hate relationship with football

Football in the Mother City has a rich history of fighting racism, but that past is a distant memory with the sport now reduced to begging for a field to host the beautiful game.

The gains made by white South Africans during apartheid manifest spectacularly in Cape Town’s greater metropolitan area and along the Atlantic Seaboard. Sport cars, SUVs and polyester run along the narrow, winding streets overlooking its plush suburbs.

The Group Areas Act (1950) and other related nodes of apartheid’s planning network forced the poor to the periphery of economic existence, pushing them to the end of the line of services and facilities provided by the City of Cape Town.

In 1975, the city hosted a football match that at best attempted to acknowledge the racial divide and, at worst, pretended to the world that segregation works. That blacks and white can compete on equal footing, even in an unequal society. It was an orchestrated event designed to tease and seduce the international sporting bodies that had forced South Africa into the sporting wilderness.

The Hellenic versus Kaizer Chiefs encounter was a first dance, a meet and greet, and a precursor to a more serious and sustainable merger (of sorts) years later between the white National Football League and the black National Professional Soccer League to form a new, “non-racial” league of the same name – the NPSL.

Orchestrated ‘merger’

By non-racial, the league meant that the majority-white teams were allowed to field a maximum of three black players. It was, after all, still 1978 in apartheid South Africa.

The orchestrated “merger” between white and black footballers, it appears, was an attempt to socially engineer a sense of unity during a time when South Africa was the pariah of the world. In the late 1970s, the word “unity” was unmentionable for both the murderous state and the anti-apartheid activists risking detention or death at every roadblock. But football had a life of its own.

In 1985, the NPSL split over accusations of conflict of interest against then chairperson George Thabe. Breakaway teams led by Kaizer Motaung formed the National Soccer League (NSL), while the remaining teams plied their trade in the second division of the NSL, now known as the National First Division.

The merger rubbed the Federation Professional League (FPL) up the wrong way and it refused to be part of a staged unity while the country’s apartheid laws still actively brutalised its people.

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Members of the FPL whom the apartheid system classified as “coloured” and “Indian” saw the mantra “no normal sport in an abnormal society” (inherited from its mother body, the South African Council on Sport) as a far superior weapon to the cheap talk of “change” and “unity” in a country grotesquely divided.

It was only in 1991, a year after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison that the FPL joined the South African Football Association (Safa) in a genuine show of unity. The sporting boycott had hurt apartheid South Africa – and Cape Town and the FPL were the boycott’s most stoic supporters.

Safa president Danny Jordaan is among the FPL’s alumni, along with former Bafana Bafana coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba and Boebie Solomons.

Former Santos midfielder Donnie Ronnie said in an interview a few years ago, “The players of the time, in the FPL, made massive sacrifices to fight against the political dispensation of the era. And, if you ask any of us, we would tell you that we would do it all over again if we had to. For us, it was always about principle. And today, a vibrant, proud football association like the FPL is not getting its due.”

Glorious football past a distant memory

The recollections and history of Cape Town Spurs have vanished from the collective memory of the current football fraternity. Today, the stories that define the club that birthed the likes of Shaun Bartlett, Andre Arendse and David Kannemeyer are the tales men and women will tell their grandchildren one day.

The Champion of Champions match between Hellenic and Chiefs saw 35 000 tickets sold out in three hours. Those who couldn’t buy a ticket scaled the walls to catch a glimpse of white against black – on the same field. For a while, Cape Town’s history of “struggle football” (for lack of a better post-revolutionary humble brag) seemed to have paid off.

Those glory days of football may now also have been consigned to the realm of make-believe, as the City of Cape Town puts the squeeze on local football clubs today, in the process treating rugby as the favourite child.

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Athlone Stadium was once a shining example of football development, courtesy of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. The stadium received a R297 million makeover with Santos and Ajax Cape Town playing an official inauguration match on 23 January 2010. It was arguably the best of times for Cape Town football as it basked in the warmth of South Africa circa 2010. But on 31 January 2019, Safa Cape Town was left effectively homeless as it became the scene of a dramatic lockout by the city.

The closure was necessitated by grading concerns, the city warned: “Should the Athlone Stadium not be compliant in terms of legislation, and lose its grading certificate, this will have dire consequences for all sport and cultural events that are hosted at the facility, not just soccer,” it said.

The city’s matter-of-fact statement read like the eviction letter it was. “The Athlone Stadium, like any other such facility, has to comply with national legislation in terms of the Safety at Sports and Recreational Events Act No. 2 of 2010,” the city said.

‘We are going nowhere’

In short, the city is protecting a grading certificate, without which, it says, it cannot operate and monetise the stadium better. Safa Cape Town had to make way for rezoning and improvements to the stadium’s safety measures.

“We are going nowhere. That is the home of football and that is where we will launch all of our activities from,” Safa Cape Town president Bennett Bailey said as he addressed a press conference outside the stadium at the time.

Thankfully, reason prevailed and the city decided against evicting its tenants. The reasons put forward for asking Safa to vacate Athlone Stadium in the first place seem reasonable enough in isolation. Except that it didn’t, and there is an uneasiness among football bosses about the City of Cape Town’s attitude towards Cape Town City FC and other top-flight football clubs.

Football in the city has been nomadic for many years now, moving from one location to the next like a foster child in need of attention. It’s a pay-as-you-go arrangement, the search is constant for a place in the city’s heart to call home. At its most basic, some respect for local football is required.

‘Football has been sold lies in Cape Town’

In November 2017, Cape Town City coach Benni McCarthy was moved enough to write an open letter to the City of Cape Town, venting his frustrations. McCarthy accused it of favouritism towards rugby and cricket.

Cape Town City’s preferred home venue, Cape Town Stadium, was unavailable as it was booked out for the Cape Town Sevens leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, while Athlone Stadium was left paralysed by the drought of 2018.

“I’ve been away from Cape Town for 21 years and while so much has changed, nothing has changed,” McCarthy wrote. “Football has been sold lies in Cape Town. When there is a private wedding, the stadiums are ready. When there’s a rugby competition, the stadiums are ready. When there’s a nitro circus car event, the stadiums are ready. For football, Cape Town’s World Cup stadium – unavailable.”

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The city’s inability to provide a suitable alternative venue for the Cape Town City versus Maritzburg United game even moved club boss John Comitis to admit he was thinking about moving the club.

“I have risked my fortune with Cape Town City FC and I’m getting nowhere,” Comitis told the Daily Sun.

“I’m thinking of moving the club to Durban and renaming it Durban City FC. Chippa United moved from Cape Town to PE (Port Elizabeth) and East London – and now I understand why, as they get the backing of the city councils.

“It’s costing me R250 000 to fly my team to Durban. I had no option but to play in KZN [KwaZulu-Natal], or it would have cost me another R500 000 to fly Maritzburg to another venue. We have been forced into exile.”

Dominic Isaacs, the coach of National First Division team Cape Umoya United, said recently, “There is so much talent in Cape Town and it’s unjustified that we only have one team in the Premiership. Football is in crisis in Cape Town and the Cape Flats, where I am from. We need more clubs to give kids another option away from crime. If we have these clubs doing well, then each can take about 50 boys off the streets.”

Dwindling spend on sport facilities

Spending on sporting facilities in Cape Town has dwindled consistently over the past three years.

In the 2016-2017 financial year, R205 million was allocated to sport and recreation, of which R89 million went to the department’s non-profit institutions and federations in the Western Cape. In 2017-2018, the overall budget allocation for the department dropped to R181 million.

In the province’s 2018-2019 budget, just R92 million made its way to the department of sport’s non-profit organisations out of a total budget of R185 million. And then only R2.7 million was spent on machinery and equipment. In contrast, R35 million was budgeted for employee salaries.

For the 2019-2020 financial year, just R15.2 million is allocated for sport infrastructure.

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The eviction of Safa Cape Town is said to be the result of long-term neglect and divestment from local football by the local authorities. The 2010 legacy that brought new life to the then Greenpoint Stadium and Athlone Stadium is beginning to lose its shine as the years roll on.

“We met with the Mayco [mayoral committee] members and we realised the stadium is viewed as a strategic asset, and the rezoning of the stadium means it must be run as a business, which is not going to suit us at all. It means that there must be commercial rates attached to it. As a community structure, we will not be able to survive,” says Bailey.

“It’s a community facility, and it’s a legacy. If it’s being run as a business, it means the whole facility becomes inaccessible to the community – and that was never the purpose of Athlone Stadium. If you look at the work done in 2006 and 2010, it was always meant to be a legacy project for the people.”

Safa Cape Town and the city compromise

Thankfully, the city’s mayoral committee member for economic opportunities and assets management, James Vos, has reached a compromise with Safa Cape Town. They agreed on fixing the compliance issues while the football organisation remained on the property; the most pressing issue is dry walls and partitions that defy fire and safety regulations.

For a stadium that hosts 35 events in three months, losing its grading could be disastrous financially. The city has since employed a business analyst to relook at how it manages its sporting facilities. The city’s strategy, Vos said, is to rezone stadiums for commercial use and create more revenue streams.

City of Cape Town Mayco member Zahid Badroodien is sympathetic to Safa’s plight but was at pains to point out the challenge the city faces.

“Our sport can’t struggle, they shouldn’t struggle to find a base to administrate themselves and extend their efforts into all of our communities. I believe that we do good work to promote active lifestyles … but at the same time there is a need for us to conceptualise a framework where we are able to work with sporting federations, and find them a home so they can nurture and develop the kids in our communities,” Badroodien says. “The work is cut out for us.”

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Badroodien is adamant that the issue is not that the city has divested from local football, but that drought relief and measures to lower water consumption did affect the maintenance of some stadiums.

“We are recovering from the worst drought in a long time. Our facilities would require about two to three seasons [of rain] to get back to the conditions that they were in prior to the drought. Our facilities were graded on a weekly basis – red, orange and green. Some federations voluntarily cancelled their sporting fixtures because they were aware of the drought and the need to preserve water.

“Other federations said ‘the drought isn’t our problem’ and continued to use the facilities. This damaged and eroded grass on soccer fields and cricket pitches. In Hanover Park, for example, the Astroturf was stolen, so the money that was meant to secure the facility had to be used to replace the stolen Astroturf. When people say we don’t invest in these facilities, it is not true. There are challenges.”

“We work with a lot of football clubs on the ground. We are not trying to victimise them or throttle the work that they are doing. We’re only going to overcome those challenges if we work together.”

But this does little to allay Bailey’s concerns about the city’s treatment of the game in the Mother City.

“If you look at the state of facilities in Cape Town, it doesn’t look like the city cares. I’m talking about 90% of the facilities in the Cape metropole, if not more. There’s no grass. It is worse than it was two years ago. I do not think they know how to manage these facilities, and I’ve been saying this for years.”

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