The politics of a stadium

2010-02-05 00:00

LIKE Chief Albert Luthuli, Harry Gwala was a football administrator: ANC activism and the beautiful game often went together. Gwala mixed football with radical politics and his Maritzburg District African Football Association (MDAFA), which used Edendale Road Native Sports Ground, was in regular conflict with municipal officials. For example, in 1947 Gwala’s faction of the MDAFA brought an interdict against the Native Affairs Department manager, R. E. Stevens, to prevent two clubs — Standard and Assegai — representing it in the Governor-General’s Shield Competition. The application was dismissed with (unpaid) costs, but a match involving Standard was called off, reputedly because Gwala and supporters turned up threatening violence.

The MDAFA was frequently beset by internal disputes that can be traced to varying ways of coping with the disempowerment of urban segregation. In July 1948, Gwala was disowned by his provincial body, but back in office two years later and linking football with “national freedom”. Gwala’s position was constantly under threat and he believed — correctly — that city officials played a part in this. In 1950, they went so far as to make the paternalist suggestion of municipal supervision of the MDAFA.

Gwala was by this time living in Durban and there was an official attempt to have him excluded from the city of Pietermaritzburg, but officials had to concede that as a trade union organiser he had rights of exemption dating back to 1945. Currently, what is documented about the story of African football in Pietermaritzburg is largely based on official correspondence — the extent to which Gwala used football as a front for Communist Party activity is hard to know.

The stadium that was named after him some years ago was the most ambitious sports infrastructure development since construction of the Jubilee Pavilion in Alexandra Park in 1892. It was initially named after Jan Smuts, who had died in 1950, and had no obvious connections with sport, as a post-war reconstruction project — the Oval was considered too small for provincial competitions. Football was played there from 1952, but the stand was opened only six years later because of funding delays. The opening celebrations included a match between Natal and the English club Preston North End (the result was 0-1).

From the early sixties, the Group Areas Act was applied vigorously to Pietermaritzburg and the provision and control of sports facilities became important issues in the campaign against apartheid. Multiracial clubs such as Lincoln City and Maritzburg City, which belonged to the short-lived South Africa Soccer League (SASL, or People’s League founded in 1961), normally used the Royal Showgrounds. But when this venue was unavailable, they were denied use of Jan Smuts Stadium on the flimsiest of excuses, although a wide spectrum of other users, including the Caledonian Society and Kennel Club, had no problems.

This was partly a result of wider politics. By attracting black spectators to their matches, the white Football Association of South Africa (Fasa) hoped to have its suspension by Fifa lifted. Municipal authorities around the country colluded with Vivian Granger of Fasa in his self-described “all out war” on mixed football. He had strong allies in the conservative Maritzburg District Football Association which controlled Jan Smuts Stadium.

By the late sixties, with John Vorster’s loosening of sports apartheid in preparation for multinationalism and the collapse of the People’s League in 1966, attention turned to terraces and white fears of large crowds of black spectators in the vicinity of Alexandra Park. The annual permit granted by the Department of Community Development to allow mixed crowds required a six-foot-high fence and locking of the gate between black and white sections; separate entrances, exits, toilet facilities and refreshment kiosks; and use of police of the correct group.

Permit difficulties caused the suspension of football at Jan Smuts Stadium in 1970-1 and matches were temporarily moved to Durban. The government’s objective was a sports complex at Chatterton Road —  which had been on the cards since World War 2 — to displace football crowds from white suburbs. In 1972, a match between Maritzburg City and Cape Town Spurs (who played in the People’s League’s truncated successor, the Federation Professional League) was rejected by the MDFA after Northdale Stadium had been declared too small. Jan Smuts Stadium was defiantly white — as was shown by the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the republic there in 1971. But by the late seventies, all restrictions had been dropped in the government’s attempt to depoliticise sport and present apartheid in reformed terms.

But football is not the only sport associated with Harry Gwala Stadium. One of the first flood-lit cricket matches in South Africa took place there on January 13, 1981, when a Dereck Dowling XI met the Kingsmead Mynahs, a game in which a young Robin Smith played. The following year, mercenary cricket came to Jan Smuts Stadium in defiance of the international boycott — the weak Arosa Sri Lanka team played a flood-lit game. Floodlights and mercenary cricketers drew attention to issues around relative resource provision, leading to a bitter confrontation between nonracial cricket and the city council.

This was to erupt again in 1990 when the ill-advised English cricket mercenaries under Mike Gatting toured South Africa. The pitch at Jan Smuts Stadium was surrounded by barbed wire for their three-day match against a South African Invitation XI. On the opening day, Saturday, February 3, a 7 000-strong crowd of protestors marched from the city centre to the stadium (this was the day after President F. W. de Klerk’s unbanning of the liberation organisations). Archie Gumede presented a memorandum to Gatting and manager David Graveney and some of a still sizeable crowd threw missiles at them. Ali Bacher, manager of the South African Cricket Union and present at the scene, admits that this episode was one of several that unnerved him and led to curtailment of the tour. It was the last of its kind.

For some years, the up run of the Comrades Marathon finished at Jan Smuts Stadium. In 1981, the organisers controversially allowed the race to be associated with the 20th anniversary of the white republic. Some runners wore black armbands to protest at the abuse of human rights. As they ran across the finish they were grabbed by officials who demanded their names and numbers, a highly loaded request in what was already an effective police state.

The history of sport in Pietermaritzburg is one of social control and, later, political resistance. Jan Smuts Stadium was symbolic of both. Whatever one’s views of the historical role of Gwala, it is fitting that the now refurbished stadium should bear his name.

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