Can we reclaim football from below?

by Jul 15, 2021Amandla

Can we reclaim football from below?

Mazibuko Kanyiso Jara | Amandla 76 | June/July 2021

In Europe, we recently saw mass protests by the supporters of Liverpool, Manchester United and other English Premiership clubs against the proposed European Super League. This action sunk the proposed elite Super League and demonstrated the potential power of supporters, which reached all the way to the inaccessible boardrooms controlling European football. 

In South Africa, such action is unimaginable. The famous, popular and solidarity-based Iwisa Charity Spectacular tournament was killed by the commercial interests of the once-dominant Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. And there was no action by football supporters. The season-opening tournament had existed for more than 15 years and participation in it was always based on the telephone-based popular vote of at least 2 million football supporters each year determining which four teams competed. The entire proceeds were given to “charity”. 

Where there was some kind of mass action was a limited march in early May by Chiefs fans to demand better performance. This is an action which Pirates fans threatened to undertake for the same reasons but failed to execute. 

Football commodified away from popular control 

It is the power of money over football that has led to the decade-long domination of the Premier Soccer League by Mamelodi Sundowns. Sundowns have been financed from the mining-based profits and wealth held by the family of Patrice Motsepe, whose mining companies largely pay starvation wages to tens of thousands of mine workers. 

This commodification of football can be seen elsewhere too – the capture of TV rights by the Naspers-owned DSTV, the dependence of professional football on sponsorships by capitalist companies, and the control of football clubs by unelected and unaccountable families and private companies. 

As implied above, the reality of commodified and elite-controlled football is taken as given and unchangeable by the majority of football fans. This hegemonic reality is actually in direct contradiction to what had existed as the popular control of football at earlier moments of our history. 

My club, Orlando Pirates, was not known as the People’s Club for a trite reason. It was precisely because its supporters attended its meetings in mass and held significant weight in the decisions made about the direction of the club. Earlier, the club even had a more community character when the old Orlando Boys Club, from which Pirates originated, was controlled by a community-elected and women-dominated committee. 

The same was the case for Moroka Swallows, the early Sundowns, Witbank Black Aces, the defunct Pimville United Brothers and many others. Importantly, this culture of working class control of a club was not the case with Chiefs which has always centred around the figure of Kaizer Motaung. 

The rolling back of popular control of these clubs was often bloody and deadly. The presently dominant mafia would not tolerate any opposition to its rising control of these clubs. It is a great omission that little has been written or recorded in film about this aspect of our football’s history. 

The only semblance of football supporter participation is in the Supporters’ Clubs that the leading clubs have. Through country-wide branch networks there is some limited exercise of supporter power and voice at the most basic level. However, there is limited autonomy and ultimate subordination to the Marketing Divisions of the actual Football Club. Supporters still do not have any say, voice and power in the ownership, control and administration of the clubs. 

Primitive accumulation by a football mafia 

The mafia-style control of our football has led to the disaster that the national men’s team has been for more than 15 years now. This failure largely stems from the absence of a broad-based, resourced, dynamic and innovative football development agenda. Instead, the mafia at the helm of our football uses its power to primitively accumulate wealth, which takes away from bottom-up football development. 

When the PSL first negotiated TV rights with Supersport in 2007, it decided to pay a R70 million bonus to a three-person committee (Irvin Khoza, Kaizer Motaung and Mato Madlala) that negotiated the R1,6 billion rand deal. They did this instead of meeting the demand from lower tier clubs to increase the monthly grant from R50,000 to R200,000. This went together with another demand to increase voting powers for these clubs from two to five. 

No broad-based development 

SAFA scored a windfall of R685 million for football development from hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament. FIFA transferred this amount into the 2010 Fifa World Cup Legacy Trust which was established by FIFA and SAFA to promote and develop football. The most logical thing was to promote grassroots football starting with school football. 

Despite this windfall, SAFA has never initiated any such grassroots development programme. In many townships and rural villages, school football is not supported at all. There are no coach development programmes, schools do not have budgets for playing equipment, transport costs to games are self-financed by each school, and school sports grounds are poorly developed. SAFA has also not publicly accounted for how the FIFA windfall was used. The only reported activity was the R137 million used to build SAFA House next to FNB Stadium. Already by 2014, SAFA financial statements confirmed a loss of R55m for that year. 

Instead of promoting real bottom-up development, the mafia dangles the false promise of commercialised football as the path to football development. Even university-based clubs are encouraged to secure private sponsorships in the same way it happened with varsity rugby. It is also the same for 2nd-tier and 3rd-tier and lower division clubs which have far smaller resources than the premier division. As a result, many of the newly enriched BEE beneficiaries have sought ownership of these lower tier clubs as a demonstration of their newly arrived status. Some have taken short cuts by buying premier clubs’ statuses. All this perpetuates the domination of the commercial logic over broad-based development. 

The underdevelopment of women’s soccer is another symptom of the mafia approach to our football. If women’s football proves to be commercially viable, it is likely that the same mafia will capture it in order to continue with accumulation and not for the development of women’s football. 

Seeds for change 

Despite the limits of the Supporters’ Clubs as discussed above, the seed for change in football actually lies in them. They can become an important platform and voice in the necessary struggle to democratise football and reclaim it from the elites.. This agenda can start with the demand for the return of the Charity Tournament, creating institutional space for the role of supporters in the ownership and control of clubs and the redirecting of resources to lower level football development. 

Beyond the clubs, there is much work to do to raise the banner of school football development. This is where teacher trade unions, student organisations and parents need to be better organised around the revival of school sports in general. It is on that basis that they can be an organised voice putting mass pressure on both the state, the football establishment and private companies for the redirection of resources away from the mafia into school sports. 

These ideas can only become real with much activist effort and the effective organisation of a radical sports transformation agenda in supporters clubs, and in school sports. This would the more sustainable and democratic foundation that can guarantee quality and  success of our national teams in the long term. 

Mazibuko Jara is part of the Amandla Editorial Collective. 

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