Answering xenophobia: The rise of a Johannesburg soccer team

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 27 August 2015

Immigration is a critical, current international issue, particularly in the Global North. But places like South Africa, with a population of about 50 million, is also home to an estimated five million immigrants.

In a context where poor South Africans struggle to find work and service delivery promises are often perceived as empty, it is often African foreigners with whom they live side by side who become the targets for anger and frustration. According to the African Centre for Migration and Society, xenophobic-related instances occur on a weekly basis and xenophobic attitudes have deeply penetrated South African society.

In May 2008, these frustrations exploded into countrywide xenophobic attacks, wherein over 60 people were killed and many thousands of foreign Africans were displaced. Public outcry after another explosion of xenophobic attacks in April 2015 finally forced a belated governmental acknowledgement, after years of denial. But this did not result in "soft" local initiatives to build social cohesion, but in blunt measures which exacerbated tensions (the temporary refugee camps of 2008 were described as "inhumane" by the South African Human Rights Commission, and the 2015 attacks were followed by police and army raids on xenophobic "hot spots" that appeared themselves to target foreign nationals).

One moving example of an altogether different approach was pursued as part of the social outreach projects of a Johannesburg-based NPO, the Sultan Bahu Centre (SBC). After the 2008 attacks, and with the approaching 2010 FIFA World Cup to be hosted in the country, the organisation went into areas where attacks took place to try to use soccer as a means around which to build friendships and to help to integrate foreign nationals back into society. A soccer team known as "Sultan Bahu FC" was formed, made up of immigrants and refugees from all across Africa (Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana and Burundi).

This spectrum of African countries, however, was also the very reason the pioneering club was refused registration into a local league by the South African Football Association (SAFA) (only South Africans can register). Following a strongly-worded letter by the club to SAFA expressing its "deep regret at SAFA's lack of vision in deepening democracy and building bridges of understanding between diverse communities through the beautiful game of soccer," SAFA relented. Sultan Bahu FC is now the only team in the league to field a full squad of immigrants and refugees.

The club's Mozambican coach also emphasises the role of sport in taking players away from drugs. Religious affiliations too, rather than a divisive element, is used to foster a spirit of hope and to deepen bonds of love and friendship. Like SBC's pluralism in other social initiatives, alternate matches thus begin with a Christian or a Muslim prayer, to "create unity, so that nobody feels excluded," as the club's South African manager explains.

The club's admirable ethos, it appears, has been matched only by its stunning success. The club has been promoted five times in six years, from Fourth Division league champions at its first attempt in 2009 to Super League champions in 2014 and, while still struggling financially (the team often trains by car headlights at night), in late 2015 the club will enter the SAFA Promotion League.

Distinct from detached political rhetoric, Sultan Bahu FC is a humane and socially responsive qualitative success from the ground up, echoed on the field. In cities polarised and unequal, and communities angry and frustrated, even amidst crisis, it is a space of the radical everyday. It is a tangible and hopeful reminder of what is always still possible.

Photo credits: Sultan Bahu FC.

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