This feature is part of A Tale of One City

There were some dark days in the mid-1990s when, shrouded by the chilly West Yorkshire weather, Lucas Radebe questioned the wisdom of uprooting from his native South Africa to the stark, uncompromising new land he called home. A wary public, who for the most part were still coming to terms with South Africa’s emergence from the wilderness of apartheid, had not taken a great deal of notice of his struggles as Howard Wilkinson restricted him to limited appearances for Leeds United, an approach ‘Sergeant Wilko’ had famously taken to catastrophic effect with Eric Cantona a couple of years earlier.

The grit and determination that hid behind the Aquafresh smile of Radebe’s was what kept him going, along with the companionship of compatriot Phil Masinga, who would eventually leave after failing to complete the necessary 75% of first team appearances to validate his work permit renewal. Ironically, it was only an injury that kept the Home Office from also rejecting Radebe’s work permit renewal, and once reprieved he would go on to become a legend at Leeds, playing 201 matches and captaining the side to a Champions League semi-final.

Those toughened qualities rang through many speeches of Nelson Mandela, who shared the often violent Johannesburg township of Soweto for part of his young adult life with the man who he described as “his hero”. Their connection through their upbringing would create a bond that went far beyond platitudes in public, but that was forged through the powerful medium of sport. In successive years, South Africa hosted major international tournaments that were used to broadcast a message of unity and progress by Mandela. In 1995, Francois Pienaar’s Springboks held off the formidable challenge of a Jonah Lomu-inspired New Zealand to claim the rugby World Cup, with the tall, blonde Afrikaaner accepting the trophy from the ageing, black statesman in one of the most iconic images in modern history.

A year later, and having finally broken into the Leeds team, Radebe and his teammates beat Tunisia in the final to win the African Cup of Nations. ‘Chippa’ Masinga was about to move to Switzerland, Mark Fish was signed by the Italians Lazio, Radebe was breaking through in England, and they were all continental champions. Again, ‘Madiba’ turned out in a replica shirt of his nation’s sport stars, and while the moment he handed the trophy to captain Neil Tovey didn’t achieve quite the same level of impact as the Pienaar photo, the wild celebration of white and black South Africans was every bit as euphoric.

Except euphoria doesn’t quite do justice to the catharsis that the nation’s sports fans underwent. For in the very neighborhood where over 80,000 fans created a cacophonous carnival of celebration, there lay a dark past full of pain, cruelty and death. Victory in the nation’s most popular sport was an escape, a chance to fast forward the monumental change that had been set in motion by Mandela and his Government of National Unity, but that would take much longer to fully realise it’s potential.

Ever since Jan van Riebeck arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-17th century, racial tension had been a feature of South African history. From the Khoikhoi tribe poaching cattle belonging to the Dutch East India Company, to the skirmishes between the trekboers (pioneer farmers) and the Xhosa tribe – whose descendants included Mandela himself – right through to 20th century apartheid, native Africans and overseas settlers have battled for the land, resources and right to live unhindered.

Football, as is often the case, provided a release. Introduced by British soldiers who were posted to the Cape colony at the end of the 19th century, it was initially only played by white immigrants, at least in an organised sense. The Football Association of South Africa was created in 1892, sandwiched between the First and Second Anglo-Boer Wars, as an exclusively white organisation, with separate bodies being set up to represent expatriate Indians, Bantu (black South Africans) and Bruinmense – literally, coloureds – in 1903, 1933 and 1936 respectively. This method of legal segregation would be formally decreed by the National Party of D. F. Milan in 1948, but its roots had been deeply bedded in society for decades, and it affected the development of sport significantly.

This didn’t mean there was no outlet in football for young black men. A year after the last of the four distinct FAs had been formed, a group of boys in Johannesburg formed a football team at the Orlando Boys Club to run informal games between themselves. They were descended from migrants who had moved to Gauteng Province in the gold rush of 1886, so it should come as little surprise that they were dubbed ‘Pirates’ by a boxing instructor at the boys club, who admired their tenacity and unswerving loyalty to their own code.

They began life in the Johannesburg Bantu Football Association Saturday League Division Two, playing barefoot but with a swagger that immediately attracted attention. After a couple of years, they decided to break away from the Boys Club, and with the guidance and support of the boxing instructor Andries ‘Pele Pele’ Mkhwanazi and club president Buthuel Mokgosinyane, they finally got proper kit, and in 1944 won promotion to the top tier of the JBFA league system.

It was still a hollow victory in some ways; the claustrophobic nature of segregated football meant they had nowhere to go. At a time when the World Cup had already been through three editions, no African country even had representation within world football’s governing body. It was only after intense lobbying that in 1953 the FIFA Executive Committee accepted delegates from South Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, all of whom went on to found the Confederation of African Football three years later. South Africa were kicked out of the inaugural African Cup of Nations in 1957, however, when it became clear they would only countenance fielding a single-race team, and they were expelled from the organisation they had been instrumental in establishing the year after.

The Pirates instead had to make do with exhibition tours to make ends meet, as they had one asset they could always exploit – their style on the pitch. In 1968 they visited Swaziland to face fellow Johannesburg outfit Highlands Park, for which they received a sizeable match fee – or at least they were supposed to. Club officials paid what many players felt was a derisory cut of the money their performance had earned the club, and it lead to a mutiny as Ratha Mokgoatleng, Msomi Khoza, Zero Johnson and Ewert Nene were sacked.

Former Pirates star Kaizer Motuang had been playing for the Atlanta Chiefs in the newly founded NASL league in the United States when he he heard about the disaster unfolding at his former club, and an idea sparked in his mind. If he could harness the natural ability and bonhomie of his former teammates without the bureaucracy of the money men, he could help smooth over the issues at his alma mater by separating the discontented elements from the club. So he set about enticing some of the best talent he knew to join his new project, but not without the support of a staunch Orlando Pirates supporter.

“It was then that my late father urged me to go ahead with the project, that I summoned enough courage to proceed with the plan,” Motuang told Kaizer Chiefs’ official website. “Through my contacts, I had been informed of developments while still in the States. I didn’t want to interrupt anything. I simply asked Pirates’ permission to use the expelled players in a tour of the country to play some friendly matches. I approached Mike Tseka (the Pirates’ chairman) and expressed fears that I foresaw trouble and suggested that perhaps it would be a perfect idea if I used the expelled players to calm down the situation as it was tense at the camp.”

Motuang had tried unsuccessfully to encourage a more holistic approach to running the Pirates a year before he brought the disenchanted players together, whereby the footballers would be rewarded more fairly but with less overall focus on business. His family were entwined in Pirates history, and he desperately wanted to see the club where he had grown as a player flourish harmoniously, but as he was about to return to Atlanta and his well paid professional contract, he began to worry about the future of his old club and of his project.

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Professional football was about to be introduced to South Africa in the form of the blacks-only National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), but to gain a place teams needed to be affiliated to a regional association, and the JBFA refused to accept the new outfit as they were deemed to be rebels. Salvation came in the form of Matthew Mphahane and his rival Nigel Football Association, who recognised the good intentions of the breakaway club.

From the original season in 1971 to 1977, when the whites-only National Football League merged with the NPSL to form the National Soccer League (NSL), the first interracial national league, the two clubs shared six of the seven titles on offer. It was the new club that went on to dominate the NSL, winning three more titles to bring their total to six in 14 years. The Pirates drew first blood in the first ever Soweto derby, however – an explosive encounter that saw them win 6-4 in a local tournament third place playoff in January 1970.

The first league derby was equally dramatic as, a year after the first match between the two, the Pirates went three goals up, only for the Chiefs to complete their four-goal comeback three minutes from time. With a bang, the popularity of the derby caught the imagination of the public, and the rivalry began. “Interestingly, we attracted fans from Pirates and [Moroka] Swallows,” mused Motuang. “I guess supporters from both teams were looking for something new, something special, something different to identify with, and the Chiefs fitted the bill perfectly.”

Unusually for a local derby, there are no obvious social, economic, religious of racial divides between the demographic of support for both sides, but a series of horrific events culminated in tragedy that scarred a generation of both sets of fans. By the 1970s, all non-whites were obliged by law to carry a pass book that police would check to ensure nobody strayed, intentionally or otherwise, into areas designated for a different racial group. Although roughly 70% of the population of South Africa was at the time black, they were only allocated about 13% of the land mass, and more often than not in the less profitable or desirable areas.

Under the pretence of allowing separated equality, “… the true purpose of the apartheid policy was to entrench the domination of the whites,” according to Anthony Holmes in his excellent book South Africa: History in an Hour. In 1960, when he was a leader of the African National Congress (ANC) that opposed the National Party’s apartheid policies, Nelson Mandela was among those who publically burned their passes in protest after 69 black protestors were gunned down in the Sharpeville township outside Johannesburg. The brutality of the law enforcement inspired Mandela to found a militant wing of the ANC known as ‘Spear of the Nation’, or MK using its abbreviation in Afrikaans.

When B. J. Vorster was elected as leader of the National Party following H. F. Verwoerd’s murder in parliament by an insane ‘coloured’ man of Greek and Mozambiquan origin, he allowed mixed race sport teams such as the New Zealand All Blacks to visit, and refused to recognise Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) due to its minority white ruling class. His less extreme policies didn’t sit well with the party hardliners, and some formed the far-right paramilitary splinter group Afrikaaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement). Effectively both sides of the divide contained elements that wanted more aggressive, decisive and direct action, which was only going to lead one way.

When a new law was decreed that enforced the teaching of maths and other key subjects to all black students in Afrikaans, a huge student protest march was planned in the streets of Soweto where violence broke out as decades of tensions and anger boiled over. Police were attacked with anything the 20,000 students could get their hands on, but their response of firing tear gas into the crowds was ineffective, so they began firing live ammunition instead. About 360 students between the ages of six and 20 died, the most poignant being 13-year-old Hector Pietersen, who was photographed in the arms of an older student as he bled to death.

Rampant crime and unruly behaviour followed as many students were expelled for refusing to adhere to the ruling, leaving the authorities with an even greater challenge to control the furious youth on the streets. The economy spiralled downwards amid a raft of sanctions and embargoes, leaving the security of the nation, never mind sport, in a perilous state. This was the atmosphere South Africans found themselves in, and the stadium was the one place they could find any form of refuge.

Internationally, the football teams were not welcome at any level. Despite Sir Stanley Rous’s best efforts to include them in FIFA, naively claiming sport and politics should not be mixed, South Africa was formally expelled from world football’s governing organisation after the Soweto Uprisings, although they had already been suspended since 1961. One thing Rous was right about was the negative effect their isolation would have on the development of the game; while Europe’s growth was exponential, the predecessor to Mandela’s Rainbow Nation ground to a halt.

Despite all this anarchic chaos, there was some exchange of resources between Europe and South Africa. Eddie Lewis was a promising centre forward who came through the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club, Sir Matt Busby’s conveyor belt of talent towards Old Trafford, but couldn’t break into the first team. After a reasonable career in London with West Ham and Leyton Orient, he moved to Johannesburg in 1970 where he stayed until his death 41 years later. He coached Kaizer Chiefs on no fewer than five occassions, guiding them to two NPSL titles.

Well before Radebe and Masinga arrived in Leeds, there was an even bolder pioneer at Elland Road: Albert Johanneson. The pacey winger joined Leeds a decade before Lewis moved to Africa, and became the first black player to appear in the FA Cup final – against Liverpool – four years later, as well as winning the First Division championship in 1969 and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1967. Johanneson experienced extreme racism, but won over his home fans to some degree with his obvious talent and entertaining style.

It wasn’t until 1996 that a fully professional anti-apartheid league took off, when Motuang and Orlando Pirates chairman Irvin Khoza formed the Premier Soccer League, bringing in more sponsorship and a unified approach to developing the South African game. On the back of the victorious African Cup of Nations on home soil, it was the perfect timing to bring the domestic league structure up to date. Three years later, Ajax Amsterdam became the majority shareholder in a merger between Seven Stars and Cape Town Spurs, providing a direct link between the two continents.

Kaizer Chiefs were runners up with Orlando Pirates third in the first three editions of the newly-created league, but it was the Pirates who had won the CAF Champions League in 1995, and who claimed the first PSL title between them in 2001. Not that it was the foremost matter on either side’s mind; at the end of the season, there was the worst sporting accident in South Africa’s history that claimed the lives of 43 spectators.

Soweto derbies are now always played at the FNB stadium, known as Soccer City during the 2010 World Cup, due to the fanatical following every encounter attracts, and although the 2001 derby was staged at the 60,000 capacity Ellis Park where Mandela had handed Francois Pienaar the Webb Ellis trophy only six years earlier, estimated figures for the attendance on the day range from 60,000 to 90,000. When Orlando Pirates equalised midway through the first half, the ensuing surge of excitement gave way to a surge of panicking bodies. The masses swelled as one towards the press boxes on the middle tier, and police were said to have been inexperienced in their handling of the situation as huge swathes of previously exuberant fans collided.

The live TV coverage that day showed bodies laid out on the pitch, some covered with rugs, others with newspaper, and stands completely silent. The crazy hats South African fans are famous for were on display, but nobody was laughing. An impromptu prayer held in the centre circle with the management and players brought both sides together, again in tragic circumstances, just like the Soweto Uprisings had quarter of a century before.

While Kaizer Chiefs are the most successful side in South Africa with 74 trophies in their short lifespan and are the current league champions, it is Orlando Pirates who have knocked out the most successful club team in Africa, Cairo’s Al Ahly, from the CAF Confederations Cup to reach this year’s final. While Kaizer Chiefs boast 14 million fans in their home country, it is Orlando Pirates whose brand has been internationally recognised as the leader in South African football. Whichever way you look, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates are bound together for eternity, joined in triumph, tragedy and tension.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint