Inside South Africa's football factory

The Cape Flats were apartheid's human dumping ground – but became a fertile source of talent. Alex Duval Smith reports
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The Independent Online

The windswept Cape Flats, a vast flood plain behind Table Mountain, ought to be declared unfit for human habitation. Visitors get a glance at the area as they land at Cape Town airport, whose runways are flanked by low-rise housing and shacks. This was apartheid's "dumping ground", where non-whites were moved – from areas such as the historic District Six – to perpetuate the Capetonian white illusion of being a city more like Nice than Lagos. Then and now the majority of the Cape Flats' population was "coloured" – that painful classification for people who embody the combined genealogy of East Indian slavery, the indigenous Koi San and the passage over centuries of thousands of European seafarers.

Geography, economic realities and, according to some, a deliberate exclusion policy by the African National Congress government, have perpetuated the divide 16 years after South Africa's first all-race elections. But for all the deprivation, drugs and gangland violence, there is one thing the Cape Flats excel at – football. There are not many names in South African football famous enough to be known overseas, but the ones who did make it often came from the area.

"Apart from Lucas Radebe, we have produced virtually all the South African players who have been successful internationally," says Farouk Abrahams, a South African goalkeeping legend who now runs a goalkeeping academy in the area. The stars are too numerous to list, among them Benni McCarthy, Steven Pienaar, Shaun Bartlett and Quinton Fortune. Bafana Bafana's current goalie, Itumeleng Khune, was Abrahams's pupil.

Despite that heritage, though, the first loyalty of Cape Flats residents is not to their big local teams, Ajax Cape Town and Santos. Most fans here are more like Curtis Brown, who watched Algeria playing Slovenia at the weekend clad in his Portsmouth shirt. "Here on the Cape Flats we follow the English Premiership and since Nadir Belhadj and Hassan Yebda play for Portsmouth, it's quite natural for me to support Algeria in the World Cup," said the unemployed young man from Athlone.

Curtis Brown does not own a Bafana Bafana top, and you won't find him blowing into a vuvuzela horn in support of the South African national team. He is mixed-race, and in a country that he views as being ruled by blacks for blacks, he has no sense of belonging to the national side. In the Cape Flats, he is not alone.

The confusing football landscape of the Cape makes for a strange parallel with South Africa's past. During apartheid, black South Africans would systematically support whichever team was playing against the all-white Springboks. twenty years since Nelson Mandela's release, "coloured" football supporters in the Cape Flats ganglands have opted to pin their hopes on individual players who are their heroes in Europe, in defiance of their own country.

"You have to understand our history," said 55-year-old Farouk Abrahams, whose skin prevented him from playing for his country until 1993. "I do not agree with those who turn their backs on Bafana Bafana but I can see where they are coming from."

An "ambassador" for African football and Fifa, Abrahams is careful not to criticise the South African Football Association (Safa) or local organising committee chairman, Danny Jordaan, the coloured anti-apartheid activist who with indefatigable determination has spent the last 12 years of his life bringing the World Cup to South Africa. But Abrahams does admit that "politics are to blame" for the sorry state of the country's game.

"We shouldn't have gone into this World Cup as a host nation ranked 90th in the world. We should not be jittering at Bafana Bafana's prospects. If the players from my generation had been around today, we could really have hoped to win the World Cup. Now we're saying we will be delighted if we get into the semi-finals," said Abrahams.

Fans like Brown and others who gathered on Friday at Bellville Velodrome on the northern Cape Flats to watch the large screen showing South Africa's opening match against Mexico are more forthright. "We produce the best footballers but they are not selected because Safa wants a black team. They do not even come and look at our players," says Brown.

A more measured take on Brown's assertion would be that black teams have, since the 1970s, benefited from sponsorship. Today, the teams in the north of the country – such as the Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns – are wealthy and carry more weight with Safa than do Ajax Cape Town or Santos.

Natasha Baron, 23, has invested in a Bafana Bafana jersey. "We have to support the national team, c'mon!" she says. But then, to much laughter, she lifts her jersey to reveal a Manchester United shirt underneath. Her friend, Jody, explains: "Here, in our hearts, we support Man-U or Liverpool. We have our own teams but when it comes to rivalry on the Cape Flats you're either for Manchester or Liverpool. The gangs identify with those teams, too."

The sense of exclusion felt by Cape Flats residents from the rest of South Africa goes beyond football. The Western Cape is the only South African province not governed by the ANC. Rancour from the ruling party over the power of the Democratic Alliance here is regularly expressed on the streets with locals becoming pawns in an unseemly row over poor service provision. Earlier this month, riots in Khayelitsha over the lack of public toilets in the Cape Flats were, according to some, started by the ANC Youth League.

But the separateness of the Cape Flats has been heightened by the World Cup. Initially, residents hoped the Athlone Stadium would be upgraded for the event so as to place the international matches in the heartland of South African football. But at Fifa's insistence, Green Point Stadium was built in the centre of the city at a cost of £4m. Athlone Stadium was upgraded in the hope that it would attract international teams for training sessions. In the event, only the Netherlands are coming to Athlone, for one afternoon's training. Abrahams said: "I think the decision to build at Green Point was right because the stadium will have a commercial future." But Athlone's status, he says, has been a disgrace. "If more World Cup teams had used it for training," he says, "at least people who cannot afford to go to matches would have been able to come and watch top players in action."

Natasha, Jody and their friends are also disappointed at the facilities on offer at Bellville Velodrome. "The organisation is poor. It's chaotic. We really feel like the poor relations of the World Cup. We have just been told that the velodrome will only show Bafana Bafana's matches and those matches being played at Green Point Stadium. If we want to see other matches we have to go to the Fan Fest in town. We can't afford to travel into town."

Perhaps aware of the anger felt over the World Cup in the Cape Flats, former finance minister Trevor Manuel, who hails from there, has launched a high schools football tournament in Mitchells Plain. It will run for the duration of the World Cup and school teams will play in the colours of the 32 countries taking part. Over the weekend, the Anti-Eviction Campaign – which campaigns for those who lost their homes to building projects in the run-up to the World Cup – launched its own "poor people's World Cup" in Athlone.

But for Abrahams, far greater efforts need to be made to end the marginalisation of the Flats. "South Africa's football administration is in a mess ... The Cape Flats have produced so many great players. We have so much to offer but no one wants to come and learn from us."

Cape Flats' stars

Benni McCarthy Started out at Ajax Amsterdam's local offshoot, Ajax Cape Town. The striker later moved to Porto, where he won the Champions League. Left out of South Africa's World Cup squad.

Shaun Bartlett Raised by his grandmother, Bartlett was first spotted playing for a local church team. The striker earned a move to Charlton Athletic, where he played for six years. He returned to South Africa in 2006.

Steven Pienaar Though born in Johannesburg, Pienaar made his mark at Ajax Cape Town. Now a regular for South Africa and his club side, Everton, Tottenham and Aston Villa are said to be determined to sign him.

Quinton Fortune Left Cape Flats at 11 for the UK, where he was spotted by Tottenham Hotspur. The left-winger went on to spend seven years at Manchester United.