The Man Who Made the Bucs a Home
First published inThe Sunday Times on March 26, 2006
Without Orlando Pirates there would be no Kaizer Chiefs, no Jomo Cosmos. But without Bethuel Mokgosinyana there would be no Buccaneers, writes Rafora Rangongo.
Bethuel Mokgosinyana set out to grow a small community soccer club. The rest is history. As the first president of Orlando Pirates, he turned the Soweto team into a professional club that today is a legend in South African football history.
Now, almost 16 years after his death, the Sunday Times commissioned an artwork by veteran South African artist Sam Nhlengethwa as part of the Heritage Project celebrating the paper's centenary.
Nhlengethwa has been a fan of the Bucs since he was five and used team pictures to make his first collages, a format that later became distinctive of his art.
Now, his oil-on-metal painting echoing a team line-up picture has gone up outside Mokgosinyana's residence in Orlando East, Soweto, the humble home that was the House of Pirates.
Mokgosinyana, handsome and humorous, with a trademark moustache, was an entrepreneur who was deeply rooted in African culture. A modest man with strong Christian beliefs, he wanted to help the newly created Orlando and its residents who had been forcibly removed from the suburbs of Johannesburg.
Says Sam "Baboon Shepherd" Shabangu, one of the original 11 team members: "He was a very respectable man, one of the elder people we consulted when things were going wrong. Clean-living and always smartly dressed, Mokgosinyana was a respected community leader who placed other people's needs above his own."
Shabangu is now 82 and full of tales from those early, heady days.
The Orlando Pirates story begins in 1937, when a group of boys decide soccer should be on offer at a Soweto hall. They call themselves the Orlando Boys Club.
A boxing instructor, Andries "PelePele" Mkhwanazi, encourages them and, a year later, the team competes in the Johannesburg Bantu Football Association, some playing barefoot.
With the movies of swashbuckling Errol Flynn popular at the time, someone comes up with the name "Pirates".
By 1939 Mkhwanazi has teamed up with Mokgosinyana, a keen footballer who has played for a club known as Puur Vuur. He takes the Orlando players under his wing, becomes their president and provides them with their first kit - the old black and white uniforms of his former club, emblazoned with a "P" on the front. With the movies of swashbuckling Errol Flynn popular at the time, Shabangu says, someone comes up with the name "Pirates".
And so the famous Buccaneers are born, although the iconic skull and crossbones starts appearing only about 10 years later.
"We had some ups and downs. We were very selfish and didn't want people from outside to play for the team," says Shabangu. "We wanted children of Orlando to grow up with the name of the club on their lips. We had a team of 11 with only one reserve. And as a result we grew together and developed a very good understanding."
During the early years, Mokgosinyana quietly went about building the team. Uneducated, he is said to have worked his way up to induna at the factory where he was employed and later acquired a butchery. He was also a skilled carpenter and built back-room extensions to his home in Orlando, which Pirates used as a clubhouse.
It was there that the players gathered to play cards, where Mokgosinyana held team talks and where players camped out before matches.
One notable game in the early years was against the African Morning Stars from Sophiatown and which apparently included members of the notorious Americans gang.
According to a commemorative booklet marking the club's 65th anniversary, the match was remembered as a "brutal goalless draw".
The following Sunday Pirates won 2-1 but, almost as soon as the final whistle was blown, they were attacked and beaten up.
Still, the win meant that the team was promoted to division one of the Johannesburg Bantu Football Association at the end of 1944.
Two years later they won five trophies "and people began to take notice", says Shabangu.
The standard of football was high in those days 'because people played for the love of the game and not for financial benefit'
The standard of football was high in those days "because people played for the love of the game and not for financial benefit", says Shabangu.
"The football was great because we were committed. Some of today's players lack passion because they are after the money."
Under Mokgosinyana's guidance, the team continued to top up victories with the help of legendary players such as Willard "Ndoda" Msomi, Elliot "Buck" Buthelezi, Jimmy "Hitler" Sobi and goalkeeper Andrew "Haasie" Basie.
But through Mokgosinyana's efforts the team became much more than a football club. Pirates set the tone for soccer to become a powerful social network and subculture.
The club provided a way to overcome hardships through friendships and teamwork. It gave youth an alternative to joining the tsotsis.
In his 2004 book, Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa, Peter Alegi, an American professor, tells how Mokgosinyana started a burial society at the club to help cover the funeral costs of members and their families.
Club members also contributed a shilling a month to a compensation fund to be used if any of them missed work due to injuries suffered on the pitch.
And it was thanks to Mokgosinyana and Mkhwanazi that Pirates developed a distinctive, exciting playing style that has had a marked influence on local soccer.
Pirates became black football's trailblazers.
As Alegi writes: "Pirates became black football's trailblazers."
The team enjoyed a clean sweep of titles in 1952 and 1973 and were crowned champions of Africa in December 1995, the first Southern African club to achieve this feat.
By the mid '50s, Mokgosinyana and other older members of the team took a back seat, making way for stars such as Sidney "Ladies Hour" Mabuza, Jerry Mazibuko and Eric "Scara" Sono as the Buccaneers battled it out against Highlands Park and Moroka Swallows. Mokgosinyana remained president for life.
The history of the club is also marked by splits, the best known being the breakaway of star player Kaizer Motaung, to form the club's current-day fiercest rival, Kaizer Chiefs, [on January 7, 1970], and in the '80s Jomo Sono leaving to form Jomo Cosmos.
These were "low points" in the club's history, says current chairman Irvin Khoza.
"The formation of these teams weren't breakaways as it is often reported. Leslie Sehume and Cyril MacAravey, who worked for The World [newspaper], are guys who instigated the formation of Chiefs because they wanted an alternative to Pirates.
"Sehume was too American, more influenced by American culture. He told me in his own words how he was hounded out of a Pirates meeting. He wanted a glamour club to oppose Pirates," he says.
Like Mokgosinyana, Khoza will always be associated with Pirates because it is under his reign that the club has become a multimillion-rand company with a base of between 10 million and 15 million supporters.
Khoza, who came from Alexandra township and had played for Alexandra Blackpool, ended up supporting the Buccaneers after his family settled in Soweto. He was taken to his first Pirates meeting by China "Dibaba" Hlongwane.
The youngest secretary of Orlando Pirates, Khoza rose up the ranks of the club and was appointed administrator in 1976.
The club, he says, assisted those who were new to the city in acquiring passes and getting jobs. People networked through the club and those who worked for the Johannesburg council helped others get what was referred to as a "special", or Section 188, in their passbooks to enable them to seek employment.
"There was also a lot of political education because there were political giants who were associated with the club at the time.
"And by association with club members and followers, people from outside the city would get a feel of the kind of dress sense that was required for one not to be detected as an outsider. In terms of being a klever [street-wise person] and fashionable and buying the right records, it helped to be among the Buccaneer faithful," Khoza says.
But he is tight-lipped about the value of the club. "If I were to sell the club tomorrow it wouldn't be for less than R1-billion. This club is history, it is a culture and tradition - no amount of money can buy that."