Football fans: Dressed to kill for their teams

Pirates fan Molife says that dressing up as a woman sends a message that Bucs is 'the mother of all teams'. (Antony Kaminju)

Pirates fan Molife says that dressing up as a woman sends a message that Bucs is 'the mother of all teams'. (Antony Kaminju)

I have been following South African soccer fans and documenting their lifestyles for the past two years. I am fascinated by the way they construct identities for themselves – an act that, for me, provokes more questions than answers.

I had previously seen brief shots of the fans on television, blowing their vuvuzelas and wearing makarapas (stylised headgear). I wondered about the paraphernalia fans brought with them to the stadium.
Armed with my camera and a notebook, I embarked on a journey to find out who these fans are and what drives them to put on such elaborate performances.

I am curious about the motivation and meaning behind their ­performances, both on the terraces and beyond the stadium.

I am interested specifically in the fans of Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, the two clubs said to have the biggest followings in South Africa.

Attending a match between the two sides in Soweto in 2009 was an unforgettable experience. I could hear vuvuzelas blowing from different corners of the city.

As kick-off time drew near, crowds of fans – men and women, some accompanied by their young ones – snaked their way into the stadium.

One of the fans told me that attending the Soweto derby was like attending a religious event. This brought to mind how some scholars have observed similarities in the kinds of rituals and performances ­displayed in football and in religious ceremonies.

Just as the church, mosque and temple are seen as sacred areas of worship, the stadium or field is viewed by the fans as a special space, and it is within the grounds of the stadium that the fans display their celebratory rituals. They seem to find an individual voice or identity the moment they enter the stadium.

I noticed quite a number of the fans carrying paraphernalia such as watermelons, loaves of bread, landline telephones, cabbages and giant dolls. Many wore masks. In the frenzy and ecstatic cacophony after a team scores, a fan of the winning team will eat the cabbage or the watermelon or take a big bite from the giant loaf. This act sends a message to the competing team that "we shall eat you up". At one recent match, some young fans brought along the boiled head of a sheep.

At another corner of the stadium, a Pirates fan had an old cordless phone that he dialled every time his team looked as if they might lose. He said he was calling God to ask him to intervene and help, and at other times he was dialling the coach to urge him to make changes in strategy.

What was striking about some fans, especially those of Orlando Pirates, was the cross-dressing. I noticed a few male fans who proudly wore skirts and bras.

One of them is Molife, famously known as "Sox", who is usually shirtless, exposing his belly, and wearing a black bra. His huge frame makes him stand out from the hundreds of other fans. He seems to have a special place in the stadium, for he usually stands near the Pirates goalposts. He burns incense from time to time, while fans near him chant and sing in praise of Pirates.

I called on Sox at his home in Witbank. My first question to him was why he wore a bra and a skirt during the games. After hearty laughter, he said: "Pirates is the mother of all clubs, so when I dress as a woman I'm sending the message to Chiefs fans that we shall overcome them as we are the mother of all the clubs." A closer look at his wardrobe revealed different brassieres.

What surprised me is how supportive Sox's wife seemed to be. She said she did not mind the ways in which he performed this female identity because he was already a fan when they got married.

We were joined by one of his friends, Zweli, and Zweli's wife. It was not easy to pick Zweli out as a man – he wore a wig, a black T-shirt and a flowered skirt, again favouring the Pirates colours.

Zweli is an animated character who does not shy away from walking around the township in his weave and high stilettos. Like Sox, he argues that Pirates is "the mother of all clubs in Africa", and thus he has to honour the club by dressing as a woman.

But he adds, too, that his cross-dressing is a reminder to Chiefs that when the two clubs meet, "Pirates is bound to fuck up Chiefs".

Antony Kaminju is a photographer and a part-time researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council. He was photo editor of the Nation Media Group, Nairobi, from 2000 to 2005. This is an edited extract from his piece in Categories of Persons: Rethinking Ourselves and Others, edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini, and published by Picador

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