Soweto Derby: an experience of a lifetime

An intrepid journalist experiences the thrill of the biggest sporting event in South Africa’s calendar live for the first time – and is blown away by the antics on and off the field

The heavens are grey and pregnant with rain. But even with the looming downpour, thousands of people descend on Nasrec some are on foot, others are in buses, trains, taxis or private cars. They are here to witness the biggest sporting event on the South African calendar. 

Most of the roads around the FNB Stadium precinct are closed. Traffic is building up, and the officers have their hands full directing cars to parking places. There is a joyous atmosphere outside the stadium. Fans argue about who will win the highly anticipated game between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. 

Love is also in the air. Couples are getting their cheeks stamped with emblems of their respective teams. One couple is made up of a Chiefs and a Pirates supporter, but they will sit together. This is unheard of in some parts of the world where rivalries get so heated, families are torn apart – at least in the stadium. But the Soweto Derby has transitioned into a family-friendly event. Gone are the dark days when different allegiances meant lovers, friends and family members would be separated at the entrance.

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It’s hours before the match, but food sellers outside the stadium are busy serving scores of fans. One such vendor complains of police treatment. He says police chase them when they try to work in town, and they want to do the same here at the stadium. All they are trying to do is to make a living. 

The Soweto Derby brings joy to Peter Khala, 60, who says he has been selling team portraits and handcrafted handbags at games for over 30 years. Meeting people from different provinces is a highlight for him, because he gets to exchange ideas.          

There is a heavy police presence in and around the stadium. They nab someone selling fake tickets for the event that was sold out long ago. 

Slowly fans trickle into the stadium. Some make grand entrances. As they come in, they are singing their lungs out and beating drums. A kaleidoscope of colours engulf the stadium’s orange seats. Many wear beautifully decorated makarapas, and others don preacher gowns sporting the colours of their teams.  

29 February 2020: Orlando Pirates fan Vusi Duba spoke about the Soweto Derby’s historical significance. (Photograph by Lebo Edgar)
29 February 2020: Orlando Pirates fan Vusi Duba spoke about the Soweto Derby’s historical significance. (Photograph by Lebo Edgar)

More than 80 000 people are expected for the 3.30pm kickoff, and there is a rumour the game will have to be delayed to accommodate the fans still making their way into the stadium.

An hour before kick off, the stadium bursts into deafening noise as Chiefs players enter to greet fans and get a feel for the playing arena. After they exit, the Pirates players enter and are also greeted warmly by their supporters. 

Forty-five or so minutes before kickoff, players take to the field to warm up. Again the reception is thunderous. At this stage, the fear that the game will be delayed has subsided as the stadium is almost full. The players leave the field. 

Communicating with the ancestors 

The smell of impepho engulfs the calabash-shaped stadium just before the start of this titanic duel. Fans burn the herb, which acts as the African wireless connecting the living and the dead, to summon the footballing gods to the match. 

In the midst of this sacred African practice, there is also the not-so-sacred being practiced inside the stadium. A Pirates official sprays a liquid across the field from the left to the right. To counter the act, the visitors’ team official sprints to the poles and rubs something onto them. His attempt to replicate the same on the other side of the field is met with violent physical resistance.

Fans on the stands are having the time of their lives pointing to and shouting at the men involved in the muthi wars, all the while recording these pre-match shenanigans on their phones. 

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I ask myself, “Kanti ebholeni kunjani, abantu bathakatha emini? (How are things done in professional football, people practise witchcraft in broad daylight?)”

It dawns on me that this game is not like any other: it is the Soweto Derby. Teams do anything to get the psychological edge. Of course, legend has it that the use of umuthi in football is as old as time itself. But seeing it live is an experience. 

At kickoff time, the players jet out of the tunnel, ready not only to battle for the three points up for grabs, but also to put a smile on the faces of millions of supporters. The cacophony of noise that erupts as the players enter induces goosebumps.

29 February 2020: Chiefs fans at the Soweto Derby called on the ancestors before kickoff. (Photograph by Lebo Edgar)
29 February 2020: Chiefs fans at the Soweto Derby called on the ancestors before kickoff. (Photograph by Lebo Edgar)

Migrant labour and football

This theatre of football, FNB Stadium, is nestled between downtown Johannesburg and the township of Soweto. The stadium is built among old mine dumps, a constant reminder of the 19th-century gold rush that gave birth to the City of Gold. The mine dumps are also a reminder that Johannesburg was built on the sweat and blood of migrant labour. 

The mountains of waste around the stadium continue to have a devastating effect on surrounding communities such as Riverlea. People live with respiratory diseases because of the toxins from the dumps.

Many claim to follow Pirates or Chiefs because of how they play or their history, but it is also true that migrant workers influenced their families and communities in supporting either Johannesburg-based team, regardless of which part of the country they are from. 

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Football historian and author Peter Alegi confirmed this: “An economy based on migrant labour helped to entrench this working-class culture of soccer. In doing so, it didn’t just bring the ways of the mines and factories to the rural areas, it also brought the ways of the countryside to the city. Think of the supernatural dimensions of the game (umuthi, izinyanga, iziqu)  as well as the links between izibongo and soccer nicknames.”

The nickname Service Delivery has been bestowed on Lebogang Manyama because he is the main supplier of the goals scored by Chiefs this season. And so it proved again when he scored the only goal in Chiefs’ 1-0 Derby win over Pirates.

29 February 2020: Kaizer Chiefs celebrate Lebogang “Service Delivery” Manyama’s goal. (Photograph by Lebo Edgar)
29 February 2020: Kaizer Chiefs celebrate Lebogang “Service Delivery” Manyama’s goal. (Photograph by Lebo Edgar)

Dull derby

In recent years, football fans have spoken of the Soweto Derby nostalgically, lamenting the standard of play and reminiscing about the heyday when a game between the two Soweto teams was high scoring and entertaining. 

Though the teams’ performances lately have failed to inspire, matches between the clubs are always sold out in days. People, young and old, from different parts of South Africa and the world, flock to watch their beloved teams. 

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Unlike a season ago, this second encounter between the Buccaneers and Amakhosi had a lot at stake. For one, the game marked the 50th year these clubs were playing against each other. 

Second, in league terms, the match was a six-pointer with Chiefs in first place and Pirates in third. A win for Pirates would have seen them narrow the gap between themselves and Chiefs to just a point, although they have played one more match. The two Soweto giants, along with Mamelodi Sundowns, are firmly in the league race. This made the rivalry at the Derby all the more interesting, as both clubs want to win the league. 

Zero to hero 

Leading up to the game, the big talking point was Kaizer Chiefs’ goalkeeping. The question was whether Daniel Akpeyi or Itumeleng Khune would be in the starting lineup. For some, this was a no-brainer, given Akpeyi’s key performances in the league in the absence of the injury-prone Khune. But fatal mistakes against Maritzburg United convinced others that Akpeyi should not start.

Uruguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano wrote in Soccer in Sun and Shadow about the goalkeeper’s predicament: “The rest of the players can blow it once in a while or often, and then redeem themselves with a spectacular dribble, a masterful pass, a well-placed volley. Not him. The crowd never forgives the goalkeeper … Damnation will follow him to the end of his days.”    

29 February 2020: Kaizer Chiefs’ goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi won Man of the Match. (Photograph by Sydney Seshibedi/ Gallo Images)

Despite the damnation that seemed to follow the Nigerian-born stopper on Saturday, coach Ernst Middendorp selected him over Khune. Alone, Akpeyi faced the Orlando Pirates’ lethal firing squad led by Gabadinho Mhango. 

Now the fans who condemned him to eternal damnation were praising his heroics. The saves he made earned him the Man of the Match award. 

When George Maluleka, went to take a corner on the left-hand side of the field 10 minutes into the second half, he hyped the fans by doing a hand gesture to bring the 12th player into action. They complied, madly blowing whistles and vuvuzelas, making themselves heard.

29 February 2020: Chiefs fans laud the single goal that won the match. (Photograph by Lebo Edgar)
29 February 2020: Chiefs fans laud the single goal that won the match. (Photograph by Lebo Edgar)

The beautiful game

For the first time, I got to experience this national sporting event live. There is no popular telenovela across South African television that comes close to the Soweto Derby in terms of viewership numbers and intrigue. 

Millions of South Africans watch on TV and listen on the radio. Having been to the stadium and watched the derby for the first time and seen the reaction of fans to the goal scored by Manyama, the only one of the game from the aptly nicknamed Service Delivery, I now understand why it is always sold out, regardless of how the teams are doing and the football they display on the day. 

29 February 2020: Disconsolate Orlando Pirates supporters look on after Chiefs’ goal. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
29 February 2020: Disconsolate Orlando Pirates supporters look on after Chiefs’ goal. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)

It is a feeling you cannot experience watching on your couch or in a pub or tavern. The atmosphere is unlike any other, with entertainment coming from both the stands and the pitch. 

A moment of brilliance cannot be relived, as there is no slow-motion replay, which means you must savour every second. The game presents a beautiful escape – for a moment you forget your life’s problems. A feeling of freedom and joy engulfs you, if only momentarily.

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