Lessons from the Kaizer Chiefs march

Amakhosi supporters’ unprecedented peaceful protest shook the establishment and started an important conversation about how fans can engage with their clubs in a productive manner.

When a group of Kaizer Chiefs supporters who had become acquaintances on Twitter played in a football tournament in Johannesburg in December 2020, and got to talking about their club’s ailing fortunes, a march was born almost out of inevitability.

“Everything started at the tournament in Panorama [at the #FootyTwitterGames],” said one of the organisers of the march, Papi Mosothoane, the 35-year-old paramedic from Orlando East who read out the memorandum. 

“When you are together you talk. We were complaining about how things were done at the club, because Chiefs no longer interact with us. I understand with Covid-19 we can’t meet, but it’s been like this for years now. We send emails to an address on their website for grievances, even call Naturena, [corporate communications manager] Vina Maphosa is the one who normally responds that ‘I’ve read your email. Everything will be shown to the relevant people and we will get back to you.’ But they never do. All of us at that tournament were talking about that email address, and we eventually thought maybe this response is automated. That’s when we decided we would go to Naturena.”

14 May 2021: Chiefs fans hand over a list of demands to members of the club’s management. 

A WhatsApp group, planning, advertising on Twitter and approaching the authorities followed the tournament and all this culminated in a march, the first of its kind in the modern era of South African football. About 100 fans left the parking lot at Tinti’s restaurant in Naturena on a sunny but chilly Friday 14 May. They marched 1.2km in a boisterous but peaceful and organised fashion to hand a memorandum to the club’s management outside the Kaizer Chiefs Village.

Ironically, the next day Chiefs thrashed Tanzania’s Simba SC 4-0 in the first leg of their CAF Champions League quarterfinal, setting up the side’s first semifinal after never having reached the group stage of the continent’s premier club tournament before. Coach Gavin Hunt’s dismissal and Chiefs winning their last two DStv Premiership games to scramble into the top eight were followed by reaching the final of the Champions League, where they take on defending champions Al Ahly in Casablanca, Morocco, on 17 July. 

Remarkably, Chiefs’ appalling 2020-2021 season might end with one of their finest moments. But the protesters will hope that Amakhosi do not use such a clear anomaly, in keeping with the nature of the sport, to paper over the cracks as has been their tendency.

Cash cows

A sentiment among the fans who marched – one that has been more widely expressed – is the club management’s lack of empathy. Supporters feel they are no more than sources of income. Marketing has been Chiefs’ most efficient department, encouraging supporters to buy expensive jerseys and merchandise, but not investing that income to ensure success on the field. It no longer feels like a mutually beneficial love affair.

The marchers’ memorandum astutely expressed their reasons for protesting. They referred to a statement the club released in April 2018, promising “decisive changes” and a “complete overhaul of the team before the commencement of the new season”. Nothing happened. 

The memorandum noted perceptively that “what followed this statement was an appointment of a head coach [Giovanni Solinas] … which was preceded by the announcement of three players, Khama Billiat, Letlhogonolo Mirwa, an untested player from the amateur ranks, and Andriamirado Andrianarimanana [Dax], a player whose signature was to haunt the club two seasons later”.

Solinas, who had never won a trophy or lasted a full season at a club, is acknowledged as one of the most out-of-depth coaches ever to be appointed at Chiefs. He lasted just five months of the 2018-2019 season. Dax’s signing led to a Fifa transfer ban for illegally acquiring the player from his Madagascan club Fosa Juniors, which played a major part in Hunt’s struggles in 2020-2021. Mirwa was released in September 2019 having never kicked a ball for Chiefs, and has since faded into obscurity.

The march raised a number of interesting points, from whose voice matters to how supporters can air their grievances in a healthy manner where previously their only recourse to being taken seriously has been to cause damage. In one incident, Amakhosi supporters destroyed equipment worth millions of rands at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban and injured security guards, almost killing Sabelo Maziba. 

The protesters want as much say as signed-up branch members. The small number who marched said they represent the voices of millions of fans who are not part of the branches but invest just as much in the club, emotionally and financially. 

“I was a member of a branch in Soweto. At the branches, you listen to the rules. When you have complaints, you send the leader of the branch to Naturena. They get given a jersey, come back without an answer and say, ‘Guys, let’s just continue supporting the club. Let’s not complain,’” said Mosothoane.

Mobilising on social media

Another march organiser, Mohau Tlali, a 29-year-old IT support technician from Protea Glen in Soweto, said the planners expected to put branch and prominent club supporter noses out of joint with their protest. “We feel like the branches are in it for themselves, so we wanted to do our own thing. We don’t even want to form a branch. But I also received a lot of DMs [direct messages on social media] from branch members saying they supported us but could not be vocal about it.

“One thing I like was that by using social media, our movement was open to everyone. We had WhatsApp and Twitter groups that anyone could join and share their suggestions. It wasn’t like we elected certain people to be leaders. We don’t have leaders. We had guys from the Eastern Cape, Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal involved and making an input into the memorandum. We kind of mobilised the country,” said Tlali.

The march revealed differences in outlook along age lines. Branch members who made the age-old point that “this is not how things are done” were generally older fans, while supporters of the march were younger, more middle class and social media savvy. 

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of social media, some supporters degenerated into calling branch members “custard fans” in reference to their perks. And “cabbage eaters” referred to the tendency of prominent supporters to seek out the cameras during matches, with stunts such as eating cabbages or loaves of bread.

14 May 2021: Protesters take photos with their cellphones as Jessica and Kaizer Motaung Jr address them.

“Most branches, without sounding disrespectful, consist of old people who aren’t on social media. But the game has changed. Now it’s more on social media where things are done,” said Mosothoane. “Although one thing I picked up was that there were quite a few older people who actually came to the march. One gave an interview on TV, complaining that what we’ve been saying over and over in our branches, nothing comes from it. He said, ‘I would like to thank this younger generation that they put this together.’”

But in a country with such high data prices, operating purely on social media platforms leaves many supporters in the dark. The protesters and branch members need each other, as each offers dimensions the other doesn’t. The protesters’ message can reach those in power without being filtered or diluted by self-serving leaders, while branches reach a wide audience no matter their financial means.  

“Most branches people on Twitter said they were distancing themselves from us, also the Saddams, your Machakas, the No.1 fans,” said Mosothoane, referring to Saddam Maake and Masilo Machaka. “I think perhaps it was because it was also not something that they had started. But they also have a privileged status at the club. 

“I think they also misunderstood us. It wasn’t about the younger generation trying to take over. We are fighting for one goal, which is to get the team back to its best, and that’s a goal for all Chiefs supporters. Things have changed, and if they are not going to voice dissatisfaction then someone has to.”

List of demands

Another complaint, reflecting the protesters’ sense that Chiefs have lost touch with their support base, was about the suspension of membership cards – and the discounts and benefits they entail – in around 2013. The branches are perceived to have been influential in the cards not being reinstated.

“When you join a branch, you pay about R200. But if you got the card from Chiefs, you paid about R15. So it was like taking revenue from branches because then the perks could be available without joining a branch,” said Tlali.

Recent protests in Europe sank the controversial Super League proposal and allowed fans to protest against the Glazer family’s ownership of Manchester United and Stan Kroenke’s of Arsenal. “Since we planned this march around December, I wouldn’t say we were inspired by the Super League protests,” said Tlali. “But after the Super League, I think we used those trends to our advantage, increasing our momentum and confidence.”

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The Chiefs march was noteworthy as traditionally fans in South Africa have been notoriously difficult to organise. Mirroring the global trend, emotions only flared periodically in stadiums. But Covid-19 and no access to stadiums meant protests became a way for fans to voice their dissatisfaction, a case of innovation stemming from necessity. 

The memorandum was assembled democratically from the ideas of supporters around the country. Mosothoane read it aloud outside the Village. It included demands that Chiefs: 

  • Restore the club’s lost playing philosophy and status as a big club
  • Overhaul the squad as promised in Chiefs’ statement from April 2018
  • Develop a vision to conquer Africa and consistently build a team for that purpose
  • Use the scouting department effectively and empower it with resources and decision-making powers
  • Form a women’s team to compete in the national league by the 2022-2023 season
  • Implement that the chairperson account to supporters through traditional media platforms
  • Prioritise its primary business of football, although the supporters do appreciate the work done by the marketing department 
  • Finalise the membership cards issue

Marketing director Jessica Motaung and Kaizer Motaung Jr handled Chiefs’ reaction on the day slickly, for the most part. There were elements of Jessica’s prepared statement that came across as missing the point, such as scolding the protesters for not going through existing channels to voice their concerns. But both siblings took the time to greet and listen to protesters individually.

Motaung Jr came across as particularly empathetic, nodding often while listening to the memorandum being read. There is a reason the ex-Chiefs striker is viewed by supporters as the future of the club’s administration and this was supported by his appointment as its sporting director. 

“There was something that happened after I signed and Jessica signed,” said Mosothoane. “Kaizer Junior said to me, ‘You know what, I’m very happy for you that you did this. And I can promise you there are going to be changes. I’m proud of you guys that you came here and God bless you.’”

Rare acknowledgement

Perhaps the most notable indication that the message had got through to Chiefs came after the club roped in Molefi Ntseki as head of technical and the academy on 31 May. On its own, the appointment of an ex-Bafana Bafana coach to that position displays ambition. Kaizer Motaung Sr then expressed a rare open acknowledgement that the Chiefs of the past six years have not resembled what a first team of such a club should. He also responded directly to the issues raised by the protesting supporters.

“You can see that the present team playing right now, we have lost something that is very critical,” Motaung Sr said. “And this comes as a result of bringing coaches, and allowing coaches to change and do things differently from the Kaizer Chiefs way.

“… I can also mention that this talks to the supporters too, who were requesting us to consider how we move forward in terms of the investment we make into our structures. This also talks to what the supporters were asking us to do.”

6. 14 May 2021: Two fans share their message for former coach Gavin Hunt. 

Jessica eventually conceded that the club has begun to address the lack of response through formal channels. “As we speak, I’ve been in a strategy session dealing with some of those issues, about our structures and supporter engagement. And they are right. Maybe we’ve relied on older structures that have not delivered,” she said. “Our supporters have evolved too. And have we evolved with them? It’s a process we have been doing, but I’d say there is an even more robust effort now.”

She admitted that Chiefs might not have matched their Premiership rivals in communicating via digital platforms, but says some of those clubs have zoned in on that aspect while Amakhosi want to keep person-to-person lines open too.

She said the demand for a women’s team, given the huge female support for Chiefs, was one of the most interesting put forward. “Once we start working with young girls, we need to be sure our development can cater to what’s needed. And what partnerships? Because starting a football team is not a cheap thing.

“Having a proper league for women’s football is going to be key. I can’t promise it in the next two years. But it’s certainly something we have put in the strategy to discuss in detail. We need realistic timelines and it’s something we also need to do properly,” she said.

Membership cards

Jessica said Chiefs are addressing the membership card issue. At R10 to R15 a card, if a million Chiefs supporters signed up, it would be R10 million to R15 million revenue annually that the club has lost out on.

“We’re also currently doing a Swot [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats] analysis on that. We want a membership card that adds value to our supporters. We stopped them because we are servicing millions of members, so it’s important that the mechanism of how you get it to the supporters and administer it works,” she said.

“Before, you were able to come to the Village and get a card. But we want to be able to deliver and track them properly, and I think with technology moving ahead we needed to be sure we found the right partners. And when we launch it again, it must work completely, because we can’t then re-stop and relaunch membership cards again.”

7. 14 May 2021: Jessica Motaung and her brother Kaizer Motaung Jr address fed-up fans at Naturena and accept the marchers’ list of demands. 

She said the “supporters’ message has definitely been heard. But it’s also what greatness is about – the greatest teams go through these challenges. We are Chiefs, so we wouldn’t compare ourselves with anyone else. In fact, we should know who we are and the expectations.”

The success of the Chiefs march could go beyond the club merely listening and meeting their demands. It could set a precedent for whom clubs engage with and how, and how supporters air their grievances in a peaceful but productive manner.

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