Module Twenty Nine, Activity Four

Sports in South Africa

Boys Playing Soccer
Boys Playing Soccer in rural Transkei. Image courtesy Peter Alegi. Used with permission.

Many people in South Africa value and participate in sports. In pre-colonial times, African people respected athleticism and competed in athletic competitions. Today, sport plays such an important role in society that a minister of sport is a part of the presidential cabinet of the national government. (You can read more about Sport in Africa on the Special Topics section.)

This section will highlight the history of sports in South Africa, major sports of the country today, and the role of sport in South African society. To see a fuller time-line of Sport in South African history, visit the South African History Online Arts and Culture Chronology webpage focused on soccer at

Pre-Colonial Sport and Athletic Traditions 

Europeans introduced many of the organized sports we think of today when we think of South Africa, such as soccer, rugby, hockey, and cricket. Yet, before colonialism, African societies enjoyed many sports and athletic activities and events. For example, young boys competed in stick fighting, men participated in cattle racing and raiding, and young men and women enjoyed dancing.

Pre-colonial African societies participated in sport and athletic activities that aided young men and boys in developing and maintaining physical fitness, creativity and competition. Boys engaged in stick fighting while herding as well as at public gatherings (such as celebrations and ceremonies). Stick fighting taught young men and boys athletic skills, and gave them an opportunity to gain status and assert their masculinity. In ceremonial or recreational stick fighting, it was against the rules for one youth to actually hurt another, thus the use of spears was banned, but the skills learned could be used in battle.

Peter Alegi, historian of South Africa, included this description of a stick fight in his book Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa (p. 9):

“In Zululand the contests began with one youth calling out to an opponent: ‘the challenge was inselelo, “I challenge you to fight.” If accepted, the reply would be “Woz’uzithathe izinduku” (sticks understood), meaning “come and take them,” that is, “come and see if you can master me and deprive me of my sticks.”’ As the combatants taunted each other they interacted with the audience. The fight ended when one of the fighters was knocked down and symbolically stabbed.”

Inselelo. Image courtesy Peter Alegi. Used with permission.

Alegi also wrote that when stick fights were part of a public gathering, they had a “festive atmosphere,” with cheering and food and traditional beer for the spectators. The fights took place in a cleared space in the fields near the homesteads.

Men engaged in different sports from the young men and boys. They practiced cattle raiding and racing. In cattle races, men would take cattle a long distance away from the homestead, about ten miles. They would then turn them homewards and run or ride horses beside them, urging the cattle on with shouts and praises.

When they matured, girls engaged in separate activities from the boys, such as singing and dancing. Dance competitions were very important and many dancers practiced seriously for the competitions. Team competitions were held at many ceremonies and celebrations. The Xhosa enjoyed the tyuluba dance where men and women both danced in a circle, singing and clapping, “with the main action being to stand on the toes and bend the knees slightly, then all in time quickly bring the weight down on the heels, one heel coming down slightly before the other, straightening the knees vigorously and causing the muscles of the body to quiver in a wonderful way. The greater the quiver, the greater the dancer,” (Alegi, Laduma! p. 13).

European Games Introduced to South Africa

Because traditions of athleticism were a part of African societies, when Europeans came to the South African region, Africans adopted and adapted European sport. British colonial officials, soldiers, traders and missionaries introduced European sports to South Africa in the mid 1800s. They played sports such as soccer, cricket, and rugby and taught the games to the indigenous population. In the late 1850s, the African elite, educated at mission schools, adopted cricket, rugby and soccer, not only because they enjoyed it, but also as a symbol of their education and elite status. Missionaries, government officials, and mine owners at about that time encouraged or organized sport in an attempt to engage Africans in constructive activity, preventing them from what some white people at that time considered heathen, lazy, or destructive behavior (such as drinking alcohol).

Winners of Sports Trophies 1933
Winners of Sport Trophies in 1933. Image courtesy Peter Alegi. Used with permission.

In mining towns and industrial areas that arose in the late 1800s and early 1900s, sport (especially soccer) became an important social organization or association. At this time, the first black sporting organizations were formed. Furthermore, with the influx of soldiers who fought in the South Africa War (1899-1902), soccer and rugby were played by a wider group of people.

Some sports soon became associated with certain races. For example, by the early 1900s, soccer became largely known as the “black sport” in most parts of South Africa. The game was easier to play for poor black people given that the only equipment needed was a ball and was promoted in most areas of the colony by missionaries. Rugby became more associated with white South Africans who were in positions of power in the colonial system. The British in general viewed soccer as a game for the lower classes, and rugby in South Africa as the game for the white people. Cricket, which became a popular sport in the country was played primarily by white and Asian South Africans.

Langa Zebras
Langa Zebras soccer team 1946. Image courtesy Peter Alegi. Used with permission.

Sport, Politics, and Apartheid:

Apartheid policies, which you read about in the history section, also affected the nature of sport in South Africa. Between 1948 and 1979, segregation of sporting facilities and leagues affected the opportunities that different athletes had. Apartheid laws prohibited the different races from interacting and thus playing against or with each other. As with other aspects of society, apartheid policies resulted in poor opportunities and a lack in government support – even government opposition – for non-white athletes, organizations, and facilities.

youg black men watch white children soccr game
Young black men watching white school children playing soccer on a school field, a luxury most schools for black children did not have. Image courtesy UN Photo.

However, sports had long been an important part of black South African life and black South Africans continued to succeed in participating and creating sporting opportunities for themselves, evidenced in large part by the many soccer teams and leagues throughout the country. Through sport, South Africans of color enjoyed life and found ways to challenge the apartheid government.

South African soccer stars
South African Soccer stars Moses Molelekoa and Joe Mthimka proudly showing their old Langa team photos from the 1940s (Khayalitsha July 1995). Image courtesy Peter Alegi. Used with permission.

To listen to interviews and see images from the history of the Moonlighters Football club in South Africa, click here.

crowds at soccer game
Crowds at a South African soccer game. Image courtesy Peter Alegi. Used with permission.

South African athletes and the international community used sport to protest apartheid. Sport organizations enforced the first international sanctions against South Africa (because of its apartheid policies). For example, in 1961 FIFA, the international soccer federation, suspended South Africa’s all-white sporting organization that claimed to be representative of the country’s football leagues. In 1964, the International Olympic Committee did not invite South Africa to participate in the Tokyo Olympics because of its racial policies. That same year South Africa was suspended from international fencing. In 1970, South Africa was suspended from the International Cricket Conference. Internal and international pressure made the apartheid government seek to change its policies. The following year, the South African government announced a new policy of multinational sport. Sporting teams would still be organized along racial lines (or “national” lines according to the apartheid government), but were permitted to play teams made up of athletes from other races.

Without a change in international treatment with the adoption of multinational sport, the South African government introduced the policy of autonomous sport in 1979. The government took out racially discriminatory language from sporting legislation and policies so that other countries could not accuse South Africa of racial discrimination, but did nothing to promote racial integration. Consequently, integration did not occur, and in the 1980s, isolation from international bodies increased.

With the end of apartheid, South African athletes and sporting organizations could participate in international sport once more. In December 1991, the integrated South African Football Association was formed, and FIFA admitted the South African delegation back into its organization. South African teams are now involved in international sporting competitions. In fact, South Africa was chosen to host the FIFA World Cup competition in 2010.

The official logo for the FIFA Football World Cup South Africa 2010 presented during a function in Berlin 07 July 2006. Even as this World Cup reaches a climax with Italy having booked a final spot against France or Portugal on Sunday, eyes are already turning to a South African jamboree in four years time. Organisers are hoping the first World Cup to be played on African soil will produce 'Football for a Better World' and FIFA will flag up preparations on Friday at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, the setting for a giant party. AFP PHOTO / JOHN MACDOUGALL

See for more information

One of the most cited events used to illustrate the nature of new South African politics led by President Nelson Mandela that emphasized reconciliation and the building of a Rainbow Nation is the Rugby World Cup finals of 1995. One year after Mandela won the presidency in South Africa’s first fully democratic elections, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. Their national team, the Springboks, won the tournament. To show his support for the rugby team, a sport mostly played by white South Africans, particularly Afrikaners, President Mandela wore the team captain’s jersey and presented the team with the World Cup trophy. Many hailed this as a symbol of South Africa’s reconciliation while others say that sporting events only bring 90 minutes of unified nationalism. This story is dramatically told in Invictus the Hollywood produced movie released in 2009 staring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the captain of the South African rugby team.

Discussion Question:

What do you think? Does sport have the power to unite a country or is it divisive?

Another more recent development in sport in South Africa has been the growth in participation of women and girls. One of the major women’s sports in South Africa is netball, a sport we do not have in the United States. It is similar to basketball, but netball players can not run or jump with the ball. You can learn more about this sport through your own research, which you are encouraged to do in the next section.

Conclusion and Activity: Major South African Sports 
Now that you have learned about the general history of sport in South Africa, research a sport that you are interested in learning more about. The South African Department of Sport and Recreation at, or the sport section of the news website, allafrica at You may also do your own Internet and book research. Write a report on the topic that you chose to research with sections that include: 1) a description of how to play the game, 2) the sport’s origin, 3) which groups of people like to play the sport (both past and present), 4) what happened in the sport’s history during apartheid, and 5) any South Africans who have excelled at the sport on the national and international level. (If you choose to research another topic as listed below, write a report with sections including: 1) a general description of the event, organization, or competition, 2) its origin and how it changed over time, 3) its significance—its influences and consequences—and 4) South Africa’s involvement in the event, organization, or competition and how apartheid affected or was changed by it.)

children playing soccer
Image courtesy Peter Alegi. Used with permission.

Here is a list of popular sports and games in South Africa that you may be interested in learning about:

Athletics (track and field)
Drum Majorettes
Field Hockey (men and women)
Marathon Running
Soccer/football (see and
Stick Fighting
Zulu War Dances

Other Topics you may want to research:
Famous South African Female Athletes
The Commonwealth Games
Rugby World Cup
Cricket World Cup
Soccer World Cup/ Football World Cup 2010
SRSA – Sport and Recreation South Africa
South African Sport Legislation
South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC)

This is the final activity in this module. Return to the curriculum, go on to module thirty, or select from one of the other activities in this module.