Culture clashes with the law in football

Referee Jelly Chavani’s decision to force two Golden Arrows players to cut off iziphandla set tongues wagging in South African football by foregrounding the gap between rules and culture.

When football rules clash with culture and the law emerges victorious, it is bound to set tongues wagging. This is what happened when referee Jelly Chavani ordered Siyabonga Dube and Sibusiso Sibeko of Lamontville Golden Arrows to take off iziphandla.  

Isiphandla is a wristband made out of goat’s or sheep’s skin that is worn by a person after they have performed a ritual. It connects that person with their ancestors.

Despite the significance of isiphandla, Chavani instructed Dube and Sibeko to cut them off before a match against Polokwane City on 19 October in the Telkom Knockout last-16 at the Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium in Durban. This did not go down well with the players and coaches of Abafana Bes’thende – Steve Komphela and his assistant Mandla Ncikazi – or supporters of the beautiful game.

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“I felt undermined and discriminated. The official violated my right to practice my culture,” Dube said. “Isiphandla has a very deep meaning to me. It is something that connects me to my ancestors. I was wearing it because I had performed a ritual at home and they needed me to wear isiphandla for a certain period of time. 

“I needed to take it off when I am at home. Cutting it off at the stadium might get my ancestors angry, and I end up having bad luck because of not respecting them. What makes me so angry is that it was my fellow African brother, who understands how our culture works, who said I must take it off. I have been playing with isiphandla from the beginning of the season.

“Other referees did not have a problem with it because I covered it and they understood the meaning of it. I would like to see referees respect our culture in a manner that they respect other cultures and religions.” 

Balancing law and culture 

Sibeko says he felt caught between a rock and a hard place that day. 

“I was disappointed, but I had to choose between the team and isiphandla,” Sibeko said. “It was a hard thing to do. I knew the consequences of taking it off, but I had to play for the team. I am now in the process of apologising to the ancestors for taking it off without informing them. And inform them that I am not going to wear isiphandla until I finish my football career to avoid what happened that day.

“What was very surprising that day is that it was not my first time playing with it. I played wearing it during the Stellenbosch game. Chavani was there, he saw me and he did not ask me to take it off. I would like to see consistency in refereeing rules, because we end up not understanding whether to cover it or not to wear it.”

Retired international referee Jerome Damon said Chavani acted within the Fifa rules to ask the players to remove iziphandla.

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“The rules of the game cannot be changed to accommodate culture. How many cultures do we have? How can we accommodate all of them? Fifa does not discriminate any person, religion or culture but isiphandla falls under jewellery and that law is strictly there for the safety of the players, not to discriminate against anyone,” Damon said.  

Fifa has many handbooks that guide the football fraternity. The amendment made in 2009 to the provisions of discrimination in the Fifa Code of Ethics, article seven, states: “Officials may not offend the dignity of a person or group of persons through contemptuous, discriminatory or denigratory words or actions concerning ethnicity, race, colour, culture, language, religion or gender.”    

Discrimination or rules?

Even though there is a rule that protects culture, Damon maintains that there is only one book that can be used during the game, and that is Law of the Game.  

“Yes, I do know that rule [about discrimination], but during the game we only use the Law of the Game. And the law regarding what needs to happen when a player is wearing isiphandla is very clear. With that, it becomes very hard to balance culture and the laws of the game,” Damon said. 

The amended Law of the Game says: “All items of jewellery; necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings, leather, rubber bands are strictly forbidden and must be removed. Using tape to cover jewellery is not acceptable.”  

One might argue that isiphandla can never be classified as jewellery, as it’s not an accessory but an important cultural symbol. 

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According to Sihawu Ngubane of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an adjudicator at the African Language Association of Southern Africa, isiphandla shouldn’t be removed on a whim because of its meaning. 

“People wear isiphandla because they are praying to their ancestors for certain things. Before one wears isiphandla, a goat is slaughtered, incense [impepho] is burnt and the head of the family talks to the ancestors.

“After that process, a certain part of a goat skin is cut and worn by that individual. Isiphandla will then be worn for a certain time that is determined by the elders. When the time has ended one must return to emsamo [ancestral shrine] and inform ancestors that the time has ended, and they are now taking it out. It cannot be taken out without informing the ancestors or taken out anywhere. Isiphandla is worn to connect a person with their ancestors. If one removes it without following the process they might face the wrath of the ancestors.”

Making a plea to the ancestors 

Ngubane says the Arrows pair should have chosen not to play rather than remove isiphandla.  

“If there were no options of letting them play, they should have chosen not to play. It is very important to respect other people’s cultural practices. So many things can happen if you don’t follow all the ancestor’s procedures. Even that day bad things could have happened to the players that might have led to them never playing football again. We must understand that playing football is also a gift from ancestors and they might take it away any day if they feel disrespected,” Ngubane said. 

He added that for players to continue playing peacefully and without feeling disrespected, they must negotiate with the ancestors not to wear isiphandla after performing a ritual. 

“As much as we have been practising the culture of praying to ancestors since ancient times, we are still going to face problems where European rules clash with our practices. The good thing about ancestors is that you can negotiate with them. It must be something done before the isiphandla is worn, not after you have taken it out. 

“Players who embark on the journey of playing football professionally, they must inform ancestors on their journey and the rules of the game that don’t allow them to wear isiphandla. The process of negotiating with ancestors does not even need a goat, only incense. After all, the playing gift is from them, they will understand.”

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