My team is losing, and it makes me smile

Justice Malala

I grew up with the sound of Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates ringing in my ears.

The world was like that: either you followed the gold and black of Kaizer Chiefs, as my brother influenced me and my siblings to do, or you were with the skull and crossbones of the black-and-white clad Orlando Pirates.

There was nothing else in football. No other team made sense or impact. Those who were brave enough, or sufficiently contrarian, occasionally piped up for the Birds, Moroka Swallows. My mother was one of these poor souls who suffered for their contrariness.

Chiefs and Pirates dominated the premier league. They alternated winning the league between them and wiped the floor with the opposition in cup encounters. A cup final was dead without these two Soweto giants.

But something funny is happening in South African football. As I write a team known as Supersport United is about to face off with Golden Arrows at Super Stadium in Atteridgeville, Pretoria.

The stakes are high. United are the current league leaders and a win against Arrows will strengthen their hold on the trophy. Second on the league is Ajax Cape Town, and third Santos, another Cape Town team. Fourth is Sundowns of Pretoria and fifth is Free State Stars from Qwaqwa.

This is astonishing. None of the top five teams are from Johannesburg. As I write Chiefs – the legendary Glamour Boys from Phefeni, Soweto – are only sixth on the log while the once-mighty Pirates struggle in 11th place!

And that is what leaves me astonished. Johannesburg teams no longer dominate the national football scene. What happened?

Well, I think that football was touched by the same winds of change that have swept through the country. Not just the incredible political changes which freed up a freedom fighter like Danny Jordaan to become our top football guru and admnistrator, but the massive winds of economic change that have blown through this land.

For decades under apartheid Johannesburg was the centre of economic activity in this country. The mining industry attracted the most talented and industrious people to the city and the province. Development was in Johannesburg, while virtually all black areas outside of this centre were ignored.

This skewed economic development led to the Johannesburg teams hogging the talent, the limelight and the kudos.

Come 1994 and everything changed. The country’s economic growth averaged 3% from 1994 to 2004, a figure that is not spectacular but an improvement on the average of 1% in the decade before 1994.

But something else changed, too: the priorities of the new government. From day one government consciously started allocating increasing resources to far-flung areas of the country.

In Hammanskraal, where I grew up, the villagers suddenly had electricity and roads. Last week I saw that trees – yes, trees, the leafy things – are being planted down my mother’s street.

The point is, economic growth in that area was not the national 3%, it was much higher. And in many small places all across this country, despite some official corruption and so forth, the growth is similar.

From 2004 economic growth in SA has exceeded 4% per year, reaching about 5% in 2005. The effect of this has been without doubt more jobs, greater access to education (one of the biggest expenditure items in successive budgets) and crucially, better lives for all.

You may be asking what all this has to do with the fact that my favourite team is no longer top of the league and hardly ever wins a tournament.

Well, the reason why the Johannesburg teams no longer rule the roost is simply because the money is no longer confined to one area of South Africa. Remote towns which in the past did not have proper football facilities now have world-class stadia. Many of the stadia where the main games of the 2010 World Cup will be played – or even the training stadia – did not exist just 10 years ago.

Indeed, only Orlando Stadium in Soweto was considered the heart of football in South Africa.

All that has changed. South African football now has many hearts. Go to Pretoria and the HM Pitje Stadium in Mamelodi is being transformed into a world-class complex. The league-leading Supersport and billionaire mining magnate Patrice Motsepe’s team, Mamelodi Sundowns, play at the shockingly beautiful Loftus Versfeld stadium in the city of Pretoria.

The same goes for Durban, where cup finals are held with regularity, something that would not have happened before 1994.

With the change in economic climes and status comes development at grassroots level. With that many local entrepreneurs started feeling confident enough to support their local teams with cash.

And thus when Motsepe made his packet in mining he did not need to go to Johannesburg to find a team to buy. Mamelodi Sundowns, a team in his native Pretoria, was the natural choice.

Motsepe’s decision has made Sundowns one of the most popular clubs in the country. Instead of taking his money to Joburg, the money has stayed in Pretoria and youngsters now want to play for his team – which pays better salaries than almost everyone else in the league – rather than leave family and friends for Johannesburg.

Obviously for die-hard Kaizer Chiefs fans like me this is terrible news. Now we struggle like everyone else. But think of this story in the South African context and you will see that what is happening in our football league now is the story of a country and the giant economic leaps it has made in just 14 years.

It is a story that says wealth has not stayed in one centre and one section of our country, but is steadily spreading to other centres and other races.

Despite my struggling team, it is a story that makes me want to smile.

Justice Malala is an award-winning former newspaper editor, and is now general manager of Avusa’s stable of 56 magazines. He writes weekly columns for The Times newspaper and Financial Mail magazine, as well as a monthly media and politics column for Empire magazine. He is the resident political analyst for independent television channel e.tv and has consulted extensively for financial institutions on South African political risk. Malala was also an executive producer on Hard Copy I and II, a ground-breaking television series on SABC 3. Hard Copy I won the Golden Horn Award for best television series. Malala’s work has been published internationally in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Independent, Forbes, Institutional Investor, The Age and The Observer.