Symbolic moment as rugby comes to black township of Soweto

May 20, 2010

SOCCER-FRIENDLY/South Africa’s long standing racist past means it still a country of great contrasts but with the change in power and social dynamics come great ironies too.

The latest will be played out on Saturday when the citadel of black South African football, the Orlando Stadium in Soweto, plays host to a Super 14 rugby match involving the Blue Bulls, the team so beloved by the white Afrikaners.

Although it is almost two decades since South Africa’s political changes began, it is the first time a match of this nature is hosted in a black township and represents the potential of dramatic images as thousands of white fans from the country’s most conservative areas head into the biggest black township to watch their team in the semifinals of the Super 14.

For most of the whites it will be their first trip anywhere near Soweto, scene of much of the internal unrest against apartheid in the 1970s and 80s and today rife with crime.

To that end, the Bulls union have laid on trains from Pretoria to the station right outside the Orlando Stadium and will bus in thousands of others, who are being invited to leave their cars several kilometres away from Soweto and use ‘park and ride’ facility.

The Bulls have had to give up home advantage in Pretoria for their semifinal against the Canterbury Crusaders because their cathedral, Loftus Versfeld, is one of the 10 World Cup stadiums and FIFA have taken over the venue to prepare the turf and other facilities before the tournament starts on June 11.

Loftus, also used during last year’s Confederations Cup, will host six World Cup matches, including South Africa’s second encounter of the tournament against Uruguay on June 16.

It is hugely symbolic of how much South Africa has moved on since the Apartheid days that the Bulls would choose to play this match in Soweto. The Orlando Stadium is not a World Cup venue but has been smartly renovated in recent years because it will be an official training ground.

It was a dilapidated old venue but the only one where football could host their top games in the days when the rugby facilities were off limits to the round ball game.

Loftus Versfeld was particularly strident in the 1980s about not allowing football to be played there because of all the black spectators invading the tranquillity of white suburbia on the weekend.

How deliciously ironic now that the hardened rugby fans must go to the township to follow their side.

They are hoping for a warm welcome from Soweto residents, but there will likely be few around because just kilometres away, around the same time on Saturday afternoon, a crowd of some 80,000 is expected to mark the opening of Soccer City, which will be hosting South Africa’s FA Cup final.

Mark Gleeson covers African football for Reuters

PHOTO: South Africa’s soccer fans cheer during their team’s international friendly soccer match against Poland at Orlando stadium in Soweto, June 6, 2009, ahead of the Confederations Cup. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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