11. November 2011 / Reedview, North West Province / South Africa
“Thabo!” they call, a now familiar cry. I look over to the group of young men, all about my age chatting in one corner of the soccer field. “Play soccer with us!” This opportunity I cannot miss. Though I still have a natural science lesson to plan, shirts to iron, and shoes to polish, I run home to change into my workout gear.
Soccer—or bolo, as it is more commonly known—is a serious affair in South Africa. Boys play soccer from the moment they can walk, playing unstructured games in the dirt roads in front of their houses, kicking the ball between bricks set up as goalposts. Their “soccer balls” are often made by stuffing dozens of plastic bread bags inside of one another to form a dense bundle. On my afternoon walk home I must dodge enthusiastic boys racing each other, barefoot, for possession of the ball.
Except for the occasional Swallows or Stars fan, every South African falls into basically one of two camps: supporters of the Orlando Pirates, and supporters of the Kaiser Chiefs. These rival teams hail from different neighborhoods in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Soweto sits at the crossroads of South Africa’s many cultures and its deep history. This township began as a garrison of hostels for workers in Johannesburg’s mines; later it became the headquarters of the resistance against apartheid, with the likes of Nelson Mandela and other key figures making their home there. Everyone, it seems, must declare allegiance to one Soweto team or the other. Myself, I support the Kaiser Chiefs (a decision I made rather arbitrarily in my first week taking up residence in South Africa). When I share this fact with South Africans, it elicits ululations of approval and handshakes from fellow Chiefs fans and simultaneous hisses and dismissive hand gestures from Bucs fans.
Unanimous support for the national team unites South Africa as much as the Chiefs-Pirates divides it. Everyone here supports Bafana-Bafana, who take their name from the Zulu word for “the boys.” Though interest in rugby and cricket is growing among South African blacks, soccer is still South Africa’s de facto national sport. From the television screen to the dirt roads of South Africa’s rural villages, soccer remains inseparable from the rhythm of everday life.
The game begins organically. Slowly, the circle of guys juggling the ball enlarges and unfurls into the field. The transition between warm-up and competition happens seamlessly: the finesse of juggling the ball suddenly gives way to the raw power of a dead sprint for the goal. One of my new teammates quickly points out the others on our team and tells me I would be playing defense. The shouts of the players rise sharply over the whine of a poorly-tuned, ninety-eighty-something 1.4-liter Nissan and the ubiquitous repetition of house music: “E, monna!” “Ka mo, ka mo!” “Tshwera, tshwera!” “Man on!”
It is almost careless, the way these players handle the ball. The artful manipulation of the foot, the chest, the head, brings the reckless momentum of the ball into complete control. Then, with the cavalier flick of a heel or ball of the foot, the player passes the ball to a teammate, who hammers it with incredible power across the field, the dense thud of leather against leather rolling across the field. When the ball runs out of bounds, one of the the primary school boys watching throws us another ball while the another gives chase to the errant ball, keeping the game constantly in play. As the ball skips to an fro about the gravel field, it raises circling eddies of dust, which rise and catch to oblique light of early evening. The dust flickers and glows pink in the setting sun, like tiny, terrestrial auroras.
By comparison, my own efforts to handle the ball seem labored and robotic. My attempts to trap the ball put it some meters from where I stand; my passes consistently run behind or ahead of my teammates. Though more than one Thabo is playing in the game, I know when they were calling me by the chiding tone in their voices. Eventually, they give up on my name altogether, opting instead for the unambiguous “lekgoa” when they want my attention. As the game wears on, I warm up and have a few moments to be proud of: a few successful tackles, a couple of shots on goal, an assist, a juke-out here and there. These temporary fits of pride are tempered, however, by scores of minor embarrassments: making a beautiful pass…to a member of the opposing team; allowing the same striker to kick the ball through my legs multiple times; losing sprint after sprint for the ball; kicking the ball out of bounds again and again.
The game continues even as the sun dips below the horizon, a full moon rising in the east, tracing the sun’s diurnal path. The game only stops when the dark grows too deep for anyone to see. I return home, dumping the dust out of my shoes. It forms two lifeless piles on the ground outside my door, their former luminescence gone. I sat outside in the gathering darkness, nursing my blistered feet and massaging my aching muscles, humbled and tuckered out. I had better rest up: we play again Monday.