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Black, white, pink or green

1. März 2010 – 06:16

One South African football team proves skin color is irrelevant on the football field

Almost all of the players with the Young Chiefs football team come from Walmer Township in the South African World Cup venue of Port Elizabeth. The exceptions are three young Germans who play on the team, disproving prejudices that to do so would be far too dangerous.

One day over a year ago, Vuyisile Meko, the coach of the South African club Young Chiefs, was standing next to the team’s bumpy football field one afternoon in Walmer Township, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Port Elizabeth. The players with the team, the Young Chiefs, were gradually arriving. Suddenly a pickup truck drove up, honking loudly and flashing its emergency blinkers as it stopped in front of one of the players. The driver told him how dangerous the area was, and even asked him to get in.

But the player waved the man away – after all, he knew the area well. He lives in Walmer Township, playing for the Young Chiefs. He is the team’s first white player. After the bakkie drove off, coach Meko broke down laughing.

While this incident happened some time ago, Meko still likes to tell the story as a way of illustrating how scared white South Africans are of his township. “I wasn’t surprised when you whites came to join the team,” the stout man with a rasta hairdo said. “We are all the same on the football pitch, whether we are black, white, pink or green.”

The team now counts three white players in its ranks. All of them come from Germany and all of them live in Walmer including Ansgar Bitz. Bitz, who hails from Mainz, is writing a doctoral thesis on small businesses. The drivers who bring their black employees back to the township in the afternoon have wanted to spirit him to safety several times. “If I tell white South Africans where I live, their usual reaction is one of horror and sometimes they ask if I have a death wish,” he said.

He had a sense of respect for the township before he moved there a year ago, said Bitz. Bitz, a sociologist, wanted to live near the people he was researching. And while he hasn’t regretted his move, he also doesn’t paint an exclusively rosy picture. “I’ve had amazing experiences, some personal ones included,” he said. “But on the other hand, life in the township is not exactly easy.”

After a year in Walmer – a township where nearly every resident is from the Xhosa tribe – he feels like he has been nearly fully integrated. Football helped him with that, he says. The team has welcomed him heartily. “I’m certainly not the best player, which is why it’s not easy to play an important role for the team,” he said. “But my efforts are recognized, and that certainly goes beyond the fact that I’m a guest.”

Makaya Lelengwana, who is both a coach and a player with the Dragons, as the team has been dubbed in Walmer, agrees: “Ansgar stays in control of the ball and keeps a good overview of the situation. He knows where to pass the ball to and just plays good football.” But Bitz’ skills are still not enough to play in the Dragons main team, which was relegated to the fifth division last year. “Those guys are in great shape and technically really on top of things,” said Bitz. But thanks to his experience, he has been able to get onto the reserve side, where he is now a defensive player.

Playing with the reserve side was also Soren Krüger’s goal. The 23-year old has been with the team for just a few months. The rest of the time he works as a volunteer in the press and public information office with the German-South African education association Masifunde, which operates in Walmer Township. Krüger says he is happy to be living in the township; he likes the lively atmosphere and the crowds of people in the streets. Despite a language barrier, he feels like he belongs to the community. And he is content when neighbors come by to take part in a barbecue. “People aren’t shy and no one rejects me,” he said.

He is, however, aware that he sticks out on the football field. “I was definitely seen as someone exotic, especially by the opposing teams,” he said. “You notice that just in the way they look at you.” In South Africa, football is largely a sport for black people; the township teams have hardly any white people playing for them. “But I really feel welcomed,” said Krüger, even if he admits having been subjected to clichés.

“As a German, you just have a certain kind of reputation – you’re a less technically talented player but you also fight really hard,” he said. “That’s why I was put on defense.” A huge billboard in Walmer may have just helped to reinforce that cliché. The ad for a German tire manufacturer shows a picture of a football stadium and beneath it is the slogan, “The ultimate German stopper.”

Opponents frequently see the white players as a weak point. “They believe that the white defenders are the fastest way to our goal,” said Lelengwana with a chuckle. While Coach Meko has also sensed that, he knows it’s not true: “These boys run a good defensive game. They’re strong and resolute when the others will likely hold back – that encourages the entire team.”

But aside from this, the Young Chiefs’ white players have a lot to learn from their black counterparts, whether it’s on or off the field. “Football brings entire nations together, that’s what’s great about the sport,” said Meko. “The friendships that develop here go beyond football. The guys go out for a beer together, they meet up elsewhere and that helps them get to know the different lives people lead.”

Many players dream of playing in a higher league some day where they could earn some money. The team has plenty of talented players and a role model to boot: Xolani Noqoli made it from the Young Chiefs youth team all the way to the Premier Football League, South Africa’s highest league. Players with the Young Chiefs, which was founded in 1978, have a huge amount of respect for him.

But that success notwithstanding, the club still trains in extremely poor conditions. Because of a lack of lights, the team has to practice in the dark during the wintertime. By day, cows and goats graze on the field, and a path with tracks left behind by donkey carts snakes its way through, too. But the team remains popular in the township since it promises a certain degree of social status to the players and provides them with community. Moreover, football is one of the few recreational opportunities in Walmer. Also, everything is relative: in contrast to most of the other 15 teams in Walmer, the Young Chiefs have jerseys, leather balls and cones to help demarcate the field.

But, Meko said, players from the white part of the township would never join his team. The main obstacles remain persistent prejudice and fear of crime. He knows such fears are legitimate. This is why he is particularly happy with the German players. “They disprove the prejudice that townships are too dangerous for whites and provide South Africans with a different view of how things are,” Meko said. “Perhaps this will help our white and black footballers to recognize that it’s time for a change and for more mixed-race teams.”

But this goal is a long way off. For now, Meko is focusing on seeing the team move up in the leagues. In a passionate speech as the training gets underway, he calls on his team to give everything they can toward the championship – regardless of whether they are black, white, pink or green.

Erschienen in der März-Ausgabe 2010 der African Times.