On December 5th of last year, South Africans bade farewell to Nelson Mandela. In general the new republic’s founding father was remembered as a principled, but pragmatic political leader. Some media coverage, however, reduced him to a one-dimensional figure, at odds with the larger South African struggle. That Mandela advocated armed struggle and formed alliances with communists was conveniently downplayed by all sorts of political causes and personalities whose politics Mandela would have opposed while he was alive, but who now claimed him as one of their own. Mandela was also favorably compared to his former wife Winnie Madikizela. His time in prison, presented as character-building, was contrasted with her increasing radicalism and criminal actions in the 1980s. Most black South Africans, however, were not scandalized by Mandela’s one-time celebration of violent struggle or his communist leanings, or by Winnie’s complicated, but flawed, legacy, which was formed in a more compromising, violent outside. As Stephen Smith rightly concluded in the London Review of Books recently: “If any one person can stand in for the country, it’s surely Winnie, half ‘mother of the nation’ and half township gangsta, deeply ambiguous, scarred and disfigured by the struggle.” Most South Africans get this full, complicated understanding of their recent history.
Zola Mahobe is another such complicated figure, part gangster, part hero. Mahobe, a legendary soccer club owner in South Africa during the 1980s, died nine days after Mandela. While his death quite rightly did not receive the same attention that Mandela’s did, his life was shaped by many of the same forces. For some, Mahobe was a symptom of what was wrong with South African professional soccer. Others viewed him (and still do) as a brilliant entrepreneur, a sort of Apartheid-era Robin Hood, and a visionary that would help reshape the dimensions of South African soccer.
But let me start from the beginning. I was in high school in Cape Town and a voracious consumer of soccer media when Mahobe first arrived on the soccer scene in 1985. Though white-dominated rugby ruled on Apartheid television as the state prioritized the sporting tastes of whites, the sole public channel also broadcasted highlights of the English First Division on the BBC’s famous “Match of the Day” program. Match of the Day played a significant part in forming black South Africans’ otherwise confusing devotion to English soccer. I would sit up late on school nights following the exploits of English teams in European competitions and of players with a South African connection, such as Richard Gough, Brian Stein and Gary Bailey. Through the BBC’s cameras, I became a lifelong Liverpool fan, but at the same time I was also developing an interest in local soccer.
Having bought the country’s top talent, Mahobe set about turning his players into media stars.
Initially that was a challenge. South African soccer was a mess in the early 1980s. Banned by the game’s world governing body FIFA in 1976 (it took that long, yes), by the beginning of the 1980s there was no single national association and at least three local rival professional leagues in South Africa. There was the white-dominated NFL, which attracted aging British players much as the MLS does today, the black National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), and the Federation Professional League, which styled itself as “non-racial.” The first two often played friendlies against each other and eventually merged (the NPSL swallowed what was left of the NFL), while the third, consisting mostly of colored and Indian teams, remained “non-collaborationist.” In Cape Town there were big professional clubs, but Santos, Battswood and Glendale Athletic, the most popular clubs in the city, played in the Federation Professional League, and could not compete against the biggest of the NPSL clubs.
The NPSL had the best players. The league was on TV2 and TV3, the new TV channels the state created for “black languages” from 1982 onwards, and Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, the two most popular clubs in the country played in it. Chiefs was founded by Kaizer Motaung, a plucky but unexceptionally talented midfielder who started his career at Pirates and later played for a few North American Soccer League clubs in the late 1960s. On his return to South Africa in 1970, Motaung shamelessly borrowed the logo as well as half of the name of his old club, Atlanta Chiefs (years later the name would be adopted by the Kaiser Chiefs, the indie rock band from Leeds, England) and half of Orlando Pirates’ players. By contrast, Orlando Pirates is the third oldest soccer club in South Africa—the oldest is the originally white Wits University—and their most famous fan was rumored to be Nelson Mandela, in prison on Robben Island through the 1970s and 1980s.
In the 1980s, the NPSL was becoming “multi-racial,” as it absorbed clubs from the old white league. Not surprisingly, when big sponsors (mostly white businessmen) started getting interested in the game, they went for the NPSL because of its large potential consumer and advertiser base. But the NPSL administrators were ineffective, beset by factionalism and doing little to improve playing facilities or the marketing of the game. Before long, the best clubs in the league (led by Chiefs and Pirates) led a palace coup against the NPSL to form the new, ambitious National Soccer League (NSL). Not surprisingly, other NPSL clubs and clubs from the old white league followed Chiefs and Pirates into the NSL. One of the first things the NSL did was announce they’d build a new “home” for South African soccer in Soweto. That eventually saw the construction of the 80,000-seat FNB Stadium in 1989; naming rights went to a local bank. That stadium would be razed in 2008 to build Soccer City, the 95,000-seater venue for Spain’s triumph in the 2010 World Cup final.
This instability and opportunism was consistent with the time. None of this soccer was recognized within FIFA’s international structures, and there was no national standard since there were four race-based amateur associations. But the soccer mergers also reflected the larger context for this period inside South Africa; that of “reform”—basically the Apartheid government, unable to exert total control and pressured from outside, allowed for laws to be relaxed. But this was also a criminal period for institutions in South Africa, including sports. Rugby and cricket, the most popular white sports, worked with the Apartheid state and business interests to break the international sports boycotts. A number of “rebel” cricket teams (Sri Lanka, West Indies, England and Australia) and rugby teams (the All Blacks) were enticed—with the use of cash inducements—to come and play against all-white national teams in South Africa.
Crucially, this was also the period when Zola Mahobe made a splash in local soccer.
Mahobe was from Soweto. After he finished school, he started with a small computer business, then a travel agency. He did pretty well, but he wasn’t outrageously rich. Mahobe was a consistent presence on the social scene since the mid-1970s, along with his pretty mistress Snowy Moshoeshoe, also from Soweto (he was married with children at the time). The two of them stood out. Mahobe was known as “Mr. Cool” and “Mr. Big Bucks” and cultivated this image with his flashy dress sense: afro, open neck shirts, rings and gold necklaces. Snowy, who was much younger (they met when she was finishing high school), came from modest means, but had a pronounced affection for shoes and imagined herself as a character in a Judith Krantz romance novel. It added to her mystique that she claimed to be related to the King of Lesotho.
In 1985 Mahobe bought the rights to a small soccer club, Mamelodi Sundowns, based in Mamelodi, a small dormitory township annexed to the capital Pretoria, an hour’s drive from central Johannesburg. The club was struggling in the NPSL and about to be relegated to the second division.