Refusing segregation during apartheid
Durban, South Africa
Today the Curries Fountain sports ground in central Durban is a fairly unremarkable pitch. It's squashed between university campuses, and during my mid-morning visit, the area was packed with second-hand cars for a local auto show.
Walking through the brick entrance and on to the drying field, it was hard for me to imagine this is where soccer history was made in South Africa.
Around me, a handful of former-players, now with thinning hair and bellies hanging, sauntered into the 18-yard box.
"Mikey's going to do that dive again!"
"Remember the one he let through his legs?"
"That day there were 35,000 people."
"Somebody came with a bull dog, spray painted blue and white."
These men grew up here on the sidelines of Curries Fountain as toddlers, and later ball boys. Then they took to the pitch as players for some of the best teams in the country during the 1960s-1990s.
Their families, their lives and their understanding of the world were tied up in this little spot of green in Durban's sprawling landscape.
I watched their now-creased faces as they laughed, re-living the good-old-days. I could just imagine the swelling crowds, the local gangsters smacking around people on the sidelines, and the so-called "fish sisters" who sat behind the net and played mind games with the goalkeepers of the opposing teams. See my photos of the occasion.
"It wasn't just the football," said Buddy Govender, who played here in the late 1970s before moving on to South Africa's professional league in the 1980s.
"As a twelve year old it was a magical experience to sit on the banks, not in the stands, because we couldn't afford it," Govender reminisced. "I didn't realize it at the time, but it was history, absolute history."
History in the making: non-racial soccer
Across the street, in a vast exam room with fluorescent lighting, there is an ongoing exhibition of Curries' soccer history.
"I can show you some pictures," said Govender, pointing to one of the black and white displays in front of us.
But for the military-style haircuts, moustaches and tight shorts, the teams looked indistinguishable from those today - black, white, and every shade between.
But those times weren't like today. The country was a decade into the apartheid government's 1950 Group Areas Act which essentially segregated people according to their race.
The best bits of land went to Whites, and the rest was divided amoung the Indians, Coloureds and Blacks. Many non-Whites were evicted from their homes to townships, far from the city centre.
Public transportation in those times was inadequate and expensive, so the Act essentially separated work and play - including soccer.
"The players moved away from one another and getting to grounds, getting to stadiums was becoming problematic," said Govender. "As time moved on, the Indians started playing for Indian teams, and the Africans started playing for African teams."
But in Durban there was a pocket where segregation didn't work - in the highly urban area surrounding Curries Fountain. Although the area was prime land, the small apartments above Indian businesses were difficult to redistribute, and so the area became one of the few places where South Africa's rainbow of shades continued to live and play together, despite government laws.
"You lived here in an area that was non-racial -- you lived next to whites, across the road from Africans and coloureds - and you played together as a non-racial team," said Govender. "Yet the law stated you couldn't."
"It was: this is who we are, this is what we do and it doesn't matter if you are African or not, we will play together," Govender added.
"To me that was absolutely normal football," said Mike Moodley, a goalkeeper famous for cutting out impossible crosses, and who was named South African footballer of the year in 1976. "At the end of the day we were all the same, irrespective of colour, race or creed."
"In those days, players of colour hid on trains to come play with us because they weren't allowed to be in the same compartments as the Indians," said Moodley. In the expression of discontent with the political situation, some people took to the streets, but "we did it through soccer," he said.
The end of apartheid and the idea of abnormal sport
After much protest, including many demonstrations at Curries Fountain, the Group Areas Act was reclaimed in 1991, and South Africa's non-racial fields, like Curries Fountain, were blessed once more as being "normal."
After a 15-year ban from FIFA because of segregation, South Africa was once again allowed to participate in FIFA soccer events. In 1992, the national team played their first game in two decades against Cameroon. They won 1-0.
"This is where the 2010 World Cup in South Africa started, if you think about it," said Moodley. "This is where we fought the apartheid system so that we could have normal sport in South Africa."
Today the country's national team, nicknamed Bafana Bafana, is the product of that struggle. "When those eleven players walked out against Mexico, I believe those eleven players were representing all of us," said Govender. "Those eleven players would never have reached that stage if it wasn't for the people that laid the foundation."
Although the Bafana Bafana team doesn't really reflect all of the country's colours - there aren't any Whites or Indian's on the team, Govender says it's a problem of perceptions in those communities coupled with problems with the soccer system itself.
"Indian parents are a little cautious about sending their kids to play in the so-called townships," said Govender. "It is a perception that must be dissipated - I am living proof of that -- I played in the township areas even during the riots."
For many years, Govender was one of only three Indians playing in the country's professional league. "If you are not going to allow your kid to play wherever, he's not going to play on the national team," he said matter-of-factly, "no matter how much potential he has."
Life after the World Cup
Many people old enough to remember Curries' history were upset that the sports ground wasn't given a face-lift before the 2010 World Cup. Plans were drawn up in hopes that the area would become an official Fan Park or a training stadium for teams playing in Durban.
But the Curries community has been pleased about the unity and togetherness that the 2010 games helped cultivate. It was like a direct tribute to the spirit that was fostered within the Curries sports ground for decades during apartheid.
"Somebody said to me a couple weeks ago, 'I wish the country would stay like this,'" Govender told me.
Govender's response was simple: "don't worry about the country - if you stay like this, if I stay like this, if they stay like this, then the country will stay like this."
"Don't put the flags away," Govender added. "Keep them flying."
This is the third part of a series on xenophobia and race in South Africa
Up Next: South Africa after the World Cup
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About the Author
Anjali Nayar is a Canadian journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She's reported from the back-alleys of the African continent for the last four years for the CBC, Reuters and the BBC, covering everything from politics to the politics of sport. From training with Kenya's elite runners to cheering on Burundi's footballing president, Anjali uses sport to learn a little more about the world.