South Africa: Ignoring the Coronavirus to Play Football

Men and boys carry on playing football in the Mpumalanga highveld, as if there were no Covid-19 and lockdown. To most, the pandemic is but a distant tale.

Life in Ezimbawuleni, Mpumalanga is quiet. The village, also known as Mafufumbe, is hidden in pine woods and mountains stretching far into the distance. Houses are far apart, social distancing long before it was a thing.

Sunshine is golden in the dry grassland. On Saturday 20 June, the dust was thick in the air as a football tournament was held despite the country being under level three of the Covid-19 lockdown. In alert level three, contact sports are prohibited. However, six local amateur football clubs battled it out in Ezimbawuleni, in a tournament where each team paid R500 to participate.

Because of lockdown restrictions, the tournament is not played at eMpuluzi where there are better facilities, and a more accessible stadium. Instead, they play on a dusty field hidden from law enforcement officials and prying eyes, in a province that's sitting at 2 528 confirmed Covid-19 infections, with 22 recorded deaths at the time of publication.

Despite the increasing number of infected people, with the pandemic holding the country to ransom, the love of football outweighs safety concerns in municipalities like Mkhondo and Albert Luthuli. In defiance of rebukes and condemnation, footballers and fans are quenching their thirst for football in new ways. They play in the mountains, bushes and forests. There are highly contested tournaments every weekend.

Fish that brings luck

Melusi Kunene, 23, who plays for Juventus FC, is a man of many talents. He is a dancer and a model who has travelled in some parts of Africa. Among other things, he serves as a gobela [medicine man] for the team - offering muthi that's supposed to bring his side luck so they may win the tournament.

To cast a spell against their rival, Phola FC, Kunene tells me that they'd use canned fish that was mixed with some traditional medicines. "The fish was meant for us to be unstoppable. Can you catch a fish inside water with your hands? Today I wanted to play pure soccer, and everyone can tell you that we played very well," he says.

If Juventus is a fish and the dusty soccer field water, Kunene didn't know Phola is an octopus - a highly intelligent aquatic invertebrate known as a master of camouflage that employs an array of tricks to avoid or thwart attackers. Phola is a local team that boasts many players who are in the Castle League, the fourth tier of South African football, and the ABC Motsepe League, the third tier. Armed with such players, Phola was able to devour the Juventus fish and win 3-1.

"When you do spiritual things, you must do less talking. Our players today were talkative and our muti did not work well. It was a fair game and I don't know what happened. But our goalkeeper was making silly mistakes," says Kunene.

All six teams fought hard. Phola, Man City and Manchester all won their matches. However, Manchester was on standby as they had no opponent to play in the semifinals. Juventus appealed and added more money, taking the prize purse from R3 000 to R3 500, to play the semifinal despite their elimination. With the winter sun setting early, there was no time to play the semifinals on Saturday.

Footballing gods turn their back

The following day, with a spot in the final up for grabs, Kunene has decided to up his socks to help Juventus win. He burns impepho [incense] which acts "as the African wireless connecting the living and the dead, to summon the footballing gods to the match".

"Since I burnt the incense - you don't have to mix it - now the only way to defend ourselves is to use spirit and salt. I am confident that it will help us to defend ourselves, especially when you know that your opponent is also using something. The spirit and salt are used to quarantine their power," says Kunene.

That doesn't work either. The football gods seem to have turned their backs on Juventus. They lose 2-1 to Manchester and, just like the impepho they burnt, their dreams go up in smoke.

"Yah neh, football sometimes can kill you," Juventus coach and manager Nkululeko Maseko says, borrowing from former Baroka FC coach Kgoloko Thobejane's famous words.

"As Juventus, we were well prepared and well organised. We went all out. This is a tournament, we go all out and we sourced all forms of luck. A soldier can't go to war without a gun, but what you don't know is how many bullets are available."

The flavour of rural football

Maseko added that he admired the fact that the tournament was well organised. "Kasi football is skilful and physical. We are talented and it's a natural football, there's a lot of kasi flavour," he says.

And such order would be evident during the final match. Two referees wanted to officiate the last battle of the tournament. This would not do, so a concession was made: the referee that oversaw the last game of the semifinals had to step out.

It is just after 4pm and the temperature is starting to drop. By night it will be freezing cold. The chilly wind has forced fans to start wood fires in all corners of the field.

The final is contested by Phola and Manchester. The former is a strong team but Manchester equally has a good track record. They too are unforgiving to opponents. Manchester takes a 2-0 lead going into half time. And kasi football being what it is, with its quirks and gimmicks, a man wearing a Jericho church sash on his head and a long red costume crosses the field while the game is on. Fans cheer and ululate at the scene. Such is the flavour of kasi football. Manchester eventually wins. The final score is 4-1, with Phola's consolation goal coming from a penalty kick.

Playing with death

The story of Covid-19 for many remains a distant tale. In many communities, nothing much has changed. Throughout the tournament, there was no social distancing, and there were no measures put in place to ensure that the players who came up against each other didn't have the virus.

I was the only one wearing a mask. There were some who thought I had come to spy on them, and were uneasy to talk to me. They eventually realised that I am neither a spy nor a plain-clothes state security agent. They began to open up. "Eish, konje there's coronavirus!" some would say in seeing me wearing a mask.

One fan said he would wear a mask when he goes to public spaces and in meetings with friends. However, he said wearing it made him look like a clown as the people he was interacting with do not wear any.

"Actually, this thing of coronavirus, we hear about it from television, is it for real?" asked one player.

"Has it attacked any member of your family? Why are you fearful of something you don't know?" a player asked another while chit-chatting about the virus.

Despite their Covid-19 denial, the majority of the players were aware that playing football is prohibited. So why did they play anyway?

Ntando Mkhonza, 23, a Manchester player, says they organise such matches because it's youth month. "But also, lockdown has stopped a lot of social activities. The youth is now prone into engaging in drugs and acts of criminality since there isn't much happening. Football helps to distract us from such realities."

Asked if he isn't scared of the disease, Mkhonza says: "Personally, I am scared quite a lot. And I don't think there's someone who isn't scared. But what makes it easier for us to gather nonetheless is that people in rural areas don't travel much. Since all of us are local residents and no one either in our families or the surrounding areas has been found infected with Covid-19, it makes us feel safer to mingle by ourselves as local residents."

Health minister Zweli Mkhize wrote an opinion piece in the Sunday Times, sharing a grim picture of the pandemic's seemingly steady stride towards doom. "Every day, I come across people who know of others who have contracted Covid-19 and are either asymptomatic or have mild illnesses. This has created a perception that the disease is innocuous, and therefore there are some who adopt a laid-back approach towards it. Dozens are dying daily and others savour each breath on a ventilator -- and yet this is not evidence enough to make people wary of Covid-19.

"I wonder, then, how we get South Africans to comprehend the difficulty of the situation, the extent to which the infection can cause severe illness or death, and the behavioural changes needed to resume economic activity without worsening the spread of the virus? My fear is that by the time these pockets of society come to realise the severity of the virus, it will be far too late. Neglecting the warnings undermines all our efforts to contain the spread and prevent our health-care facilities from becoming overwhelmed."

The pandemic delays rural dreams

Moreover, lockdown regulations have deferred some of the footballers' ambitions. Zwane says in late November 2019, 13 teams participated in a Local Football Association (LFA) league. It is one of the few gateways through which they hope to transform their lives. His team, Valencia, was in third position before president Cyril Ramaphosa announced stringent lockdown regulations.

"Our team is really trying, even though we are boys from rural areas. In the last season of the LFA league we became champions and we are now defending our championship," he says, adding that all the champions contest each other and whichever club that wins stands a chance to play in Castle League where there are potential scouts and sponsors.

The players whose love for football is unstoppable will continue to endanger their lives and that of others in their communities. And their talents - hidden in the highveld mountains, forests and bushes and appreciated by a handful of fanatics - may lead to ailments and suffering instead of thunderous applause in the future.

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