The following piece appeared in Issue #7 of Hard Crackers Magazine, which can be purchased here.
I don’t know why I looked round towards our production vehicle. We were in Soweto, in late afternoon sunshine, filming an elderly former soccer star kicking a ball with kids on a scrubby recreation ground, and if somebody shouted, they must have shouted very loud, because the vehicle was a distance away from us, up a slope. Possibly it was our driver who shouted, because when I looked around I saw what appeared to be a schoolboy, in grey pants and white shirt, maybe 13 or 14 years old, standing in front of our vehicle and pointing a shotgun into the sky. Maybe everyone was shouting by then, because as we ran towards him he fired into the air and ran off.
We’d been concentrating hard on making the most of our access to former star player Sam Shabangu because he was the closest we’d got to the nominal subject of our film, Orlando Pirates soccer club. Producer Sandy Balfour had successfully pitched a series called ‘The Heart of Soweto’ to the BBC; I’d been lucky enough to be hired to make two of the films, and one was going to be about this fabled African working-class institution, founded in the 1930s by the sons of mineworkers. It was quite a moment to be in South Africa – Mandela had been released, but nobody believed the apartheid system would really let itself be dismantled. It felt flat and breathless, somehow, and apprehensive, which is why I made my second film about women who were waiting for their children to be released from prison or come back from exile.
But on the soccer front, we had a bit of a problem – whatever Orlando Pirates may have said before we left the UK, they weren’t letting us in now. Maybe the fact they hadn’t won a title in six years had something to do with their reticence.
I’d had the usual director’s plan to film a practice early on and find a couple of eloquent players who’d let us film with them in their daily lives – get at the texture of South African working-class life in this critical moment etc etc. There was a semi-final for one of the titles happening towards the end of our shoot, and we’d follow the build-up to that (you’ve seen the movies; you know how this story goes). But Sandy said that Orlando Pirates were saying that if he thought the glory of being filmed for the BBC was a good enough offer, he needed to think again.
So we were busy tracking down founder members like Sam Shabangu, whom the club didn’t control any more and couldn’t prevent us meeting, scouting around for fans, filming young men kicking a tennis ball around on a quiet Sunday morning, and workers on their lunchbreak, and anyone else who’d talk to us about the club. A couple of older members told us, with great animation, about going to see Errol Flynn in ‘The Sea Hawk’, seeing the skull and crossbones flag, and deciding there and then to change the name of the club to Orlando Pirates (though Richard Maguire, in a fascinating paper from 1991 that I’ve only just found on-line, claims this story is a myth).
Meanwhile we had the problem of the production vehicle. When that schoolboy ran away after trying to hijack it, he took the car keys with him. We didn’t call the police, partly because who would want anything to do with the apartheid police anyway, partly because the person driving for us was a well-known anti-apartheid activist on a police wanted list (and driving a van full of white folks with English accents and foreign passports had been, up to then, a pretty good way to stay underground).
Within a matter of minutes a local resident stepped forward and hot-wired the van, which meant we could drive back into town, but also meant we couldn’t turn off the engine until we reached the hire company. They caused a bigger problem by declining to rent us any other vehicle if we were going to keep going into black townships, and they sent the production company’s name around to every other hire company in town, so nobody in Johannesburg wanted to give us a van.
I still don’t know how Sandy squared that. I know he finally squared the club; I imagined – though I probably made this up – that enough brown envelopes had been slipped into enough blazer pockets for us finally to be allowed to film the players at a practice. But it was only a few days before the match, and the nearest we got to anyone in particular was coach ‘Yster’ Khomane. He was new in the job – the third coach in under a year – and desperately aware that if he was going to survive, he needed wins.
Two days later, we’d filmed the unthinkable; Orlando Pirates had lost to AmaZulu, whom captain Dan Malesela, on crutches on the sidelines, had told them they were ninety-nine per cent certain to beat. ‘Yster’ (his nickname means hard as steel) was contemplating retirement (a softer option than anything the fans in their mineworker helmets – including the women – might do to him).
Maybe it was our fault. I wanted us to film in the changing-room before the match, but the players wouldn’t have a woman in the room, so the cameraman and sound recordist, who had the correct genitalia, went in on their own, and Hazel Chandler, the other director on the series, and I filmed in the stands, with the fans. Maybe our cool observer eyes and incorrect genitalia sent the wrong vibes down to the pitch and got the players confused. Whatever – they lost.
I just looked at the film again, on my one-and-only VHS copy that is now refusing to rewind. It’s pretty entertaining – quite funny; good vox-pops; good music. Editor Sarah Montgomery and I had a good time putting it together, and it shows. Plus you do understand something from the film about soccer’s importance for people’s resilience in apartheid South Africa – how it became a focus for imagination and passion and wit. Maybe it still is.
Sam Shabangu’s in a list of the fifty greatest Orlando Pirates players that a newspaper published in 2017, along with ‘Yster’ Khomane and ‘Bashin’ Mahlangu, who played on that fateful day. His nickname, ‘Ayashisa Amateki’ – hot shoes – meant we could cut a sequence we really enjoyed doing using the Mercy Phakela song the name comes from, intercutting those boys kicking a tennis ball around with Bashin at practice – the closest we ever got to him.
But it’s all a long time ago. Our ‘driver’ stayed out of police hands and was elected an ANC MP in the first democratic election in 1994. Sam Shabangu’s daughter, Susan, is a cabinet minister. Since I started looking up Orlando Pirates in Google on my desktop to write this piece, my phone is sending me their results (did I ask for this?), so I know that just this last Wednesday, October 3, they played a goal-less draw with Lamontville Golden Arrows. Plus ça change. Richard Maguire, whose university paper I linked to earlier, went on to work in soccer journalism; his farewell message to readers of on-line magazine Kickoff.com (‘News You Can Trust’) suggests we weren’t the only ones to run into a little trouble with Orlando Pirates. But hey.
For more information about Jenny Morgan, see http://jennymorganfilmswrites.wordpress.com