Uncover the mystery of the friendly Soweto derby

Why is the meeting between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates unlike any other rivalry in African football?

This weekend, South Africa will come to a standstill on Saturday as the Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates face off in the 172nd edition of the Soweto Derby, the biggest match on the national football calendar.

Despite being one of the most intense rivalries in African football, the collision between the two former enemies is a game unlike any other, as supporters sit side by side and tackle the fight with a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie.

It’s the kind of unity and camaraderie that would be completely alien to supporters of Al-Ahly and SC Zamelek, for example, the two great Egyptians, who challenge their own fearsome derby.

Likewise, want to suggest to fans of Boca Juniors or River Plate, or the Glasgow Rangers and Celtic duo that they should sit next to each other when derby day arrives!

Yet despite the violent scenes and mutual animosity that too regularly accompany these encounters, the Soweto Derby cannot stand any of this hostility from supporters, and the occasion in fact represents a day of great unity rather than division.

You will see a lot of makarapa – the miner’s helmet, adorned with eye-catching decorations – that both fans will wear, there will be vuvuzelas, the skull and crossbones of pirates, and the black and gold of the chieftains, but there will be no there won’t be. all the bitter tribalism of football that generally characterizes derbies around the world.

“As a player this derby carries the hopes of a nation, we carry the responsibility of the masses,” Chiefs legend and Leeds United great Lucas Radebe told Goal in 2020. “They are two giants fighting each other. for bragging rights, to determine who stands at the pinnacle of Soweto clubs.

“It goes from townships to players and creates a fantastic atmosphere. In some families, there is a lot of division during the day, people sleep without eating and go to bed very sad; that’s how deep and intense the rivalry between the two teams is.

“However, the game turns into an event more than a game itself,” he added. “People go there to enjoy the atmosphere, or to network, they sit together and it’s not as persistent as it used to be.”

Admittedly, the Soweto derby was not always as “friendly” as it is today.

First tensions

At the start of the derby, which began with the formation of Kaizer Chiefs in 1970, meetings between the two clubs were too often marred by clashes between rival supporters, and battles between supporters before and after matches were common until mid-1980s.

One infamous – albeit apocryphal – story still revolves around a man from Umlazi who killed his brother when things weren’t going as they should in the biennial fight.

“We used to have fan fights in the 1970s,” Chiefs super fan Freddy Saddam Maake said last year. “Many people have lost their lives, some are [still] sitting in a wheelchair.

“In the past, we sometimes saw draws between the two clubs just to avoid fights and save the lives of the supporters.”

The first tensions can be traced directly to the formation of the Chiefs, which was created by Pirates legend Kaizer Motaung, who formed his own breakaway club upon his return from playing in the United States.

His new team included other former Pirates players who had become disgruntled and / or kicked out of the Sea Robbers.

Not only had Bucs lost an icon, but they also saw him create a rival team – contenders for Pirate supremacy – right on their doorstep.

“When I first joined Pirates in 1989, I was told the history of the club, the Soweto derby, the rivalry and the formation of the Kaizer Chiefs,” Bucs legend Ronnie Zondi told Goal in 2020.

“There’s no way you’re playing for Orlando Pirates and you don’t have this story. If you are a gamer and don’t know this story, there is something wrong with you.

To add salt to the injury, the ambitious chefs quickly generated a passionate and engaged fanbase, and the upstarts were league champions as early as 1974.

“Back then, the fans didn’t want to sit together in the Soweto Derby,” added Pirates super fan Mandla ‘Mgijimi’ Sindane, ahead of a recent derby. “They were actually fighting, and when you saw someone wearing a [Chiefs] yellow shirt next to you, it was a different situation, we saw separate fans.

“It wasn’t a healthy environment for the kids,” he recalls. “When the two clubs face each other, everyone wants to go to the stadium, but it wasn’t safe for the kids, for the elderly, for anyone at the stadium to watch the Soweto derby.

Over the years, five derbies have been scrapped for various reasons, while the 1972 Champion of Champions final was overshadowed by skirmishes between supporters, as police dogs were brought onto the pitch to chase fans away.

Later that year, a supporter was stabbed to death and English referee Norman Burtenshaw was hit by a can of beer thrown by fans during a league game between the two, and there were field invasions and riots that disrupted the games between the two until half-time. 1980s.

Despite this, the Soweto derby – illuminated by dynamic figures such as Patrick Ntsoelengoe, Jomo Sono and Ewert “The Lip” Nene – was the centerpiece of South African football’s golden years of the 1970s.

Orlando Pirates fans at the Soweto Derby

A common cause

In 1985, the two were – together – the main drivers of the transition from the National Football League and the professional national football leagues inherited from apartheid, to the present-day Premier Soccer League, as the country switched from football. amateur in professional football.

For the Pirates and the Chiefs, and for the South African football community as a whole, it was mutually beneficial – if not imperative – that the two giants were on the same page in order to maximize business opportunities and ensure the best sponsorship and broadcast deals for the rest of the league.

During these early discussions, when the terms of the modern PSL were decided, the Soweto duo acted as “big brothers” for the rest of the division, to make sure the new league works for the majority. and not exclusively for the privileged duo.

“Our late President Nelson Mandela told us that sport is a unifier,” continued Maake. “I remember [the fans] had to intervene because modern football does not need violence.

“If you don’t want to sit with the supporters of both teams, you have to know that you are a thug. We don’t need crime or fighting in the stadiums.

Likewise, the creation of the Vodacom Challenge – a joint venture between Pirates and Chiefs – in the late 1990s helped make the derby a vector of unity rather than division.

The exhibition tournament was created in response to violence in conflict-torn KwaZulu-Natal province ahead of the 1999 general election, and Soweto’s two rivals decided to take the tournament to the region to compete with d ‘other parts of the country and ensure that the people came together for a common purpose.

They did, and a show of unity from various national leaders at the event eased the tensions that had plagued the region.

“[Now] there’s that bit of friendship in terms of fans sitting together, enjoying a football game and drinking together, ”says Radebe. “This has never happened before, where you would see the stadium burning in flames after a game like this.

“Now it’s more of an event than a grudge game.” Willard katsande

United in tragedy

Then there was the Orkney disaster (or Oppenheimer Stadium scramble) of 1991 and the Ellis Park disaster of 2001, two tragedies in which more than 80 supporters lost their lives in crashes as they attempted to make his way into the stadium to watch the Soweto derby.

In 2017, history repeated itself, as two people were killed and 19 others were injured as they attempted to enter the stadium ahead of a Carling Black Label Champion Cup clash between the two teams.

Three tragedies – decades apart – claimed the lives of 86 people and united these two fanbases in grief and, in the second, a search for justice over the alleged actions of South African police services.

“It’s not good to count bodies when you want to count points,” recalls Maake. “[We knew] we have to bridge the gap between the two clubs.

For Zondi, the Orkney incident was directly responsible for the transformation of derby culture in the 1990s.

“I remember the Orkney incident very well,” he continued. “You will never find Chiefs and Pirates supporters sitting together in any stadium, but what happened at Orkney is that people were encouraged to sit together to try and tone down the rivalry and the fights.

“However, fans on both sides fought that day, and as others tried to flee from corner to corner, this is where others were injured and lost their lives and that this was discouraged. It was bad.

“One day we were playing Chiefs in Atteridgeville, the stadium was packed and we could anticipate another scramble as the rivalry was fierce. The match was almost canceled but the supporters were already inside the stadium and it was decided to make it a friendly match.

“The game went from the front, and we weren’t as competitive in terms of tackles and going forward to want to score, so the fans realized it was indeed a friendly game. .

“The rivalry and the fighting started to improve, and the fans started to understand better.”

In a country as fractured as South Africa, the Soweto Derby was a rare display of unity and a positive event and opportunity around which fans can unite.

“We had to get the fans together and I don’t want to hear anybody say we have to go our separate ways,” Maake noted. “We travel with Pirates supporters for the games, [and there are] no more fighting and war between us.

“The people watching at home are enjoying the game, and the people in the stands don’t have to fight.”

Of course, there is always the pride and disappointment that comes with any sporting event where passions are high, but the animosity that can forge new divisions and drive fans away in sporting cities around the world doesn’t hurt this game. .Kaizer Chiefs fans at Soweto Derby match

The 172nd derby

There is pressure on both giants heading into Saturday’s derby with neither club performing as they would hope in the top flight this season.

As it approaches, the Chiefs – working under new boss Gavin Hunt – are in seventh place with 18 points, 12 behind league leaders Mamelodi Sundowns.

Amakhosi still seems to be struggling with a hangover from last season, when they threw out the title in a surprising late-season meltdown.

The Orlando Pirates aren’t doing much better, in fifth with 22 points – eight behind Sundowns, although they are aware that the Chiefs are undefeated in five and have shown signs of improvement in 2021.

However, these two will be aiming for victory on Saturday as the perfect way to kick off their blazing campaign and embark on a race that could see them fight for the title in the second half of the season.