Afrika’s tale—saved from the streets to play on the streets

South Africa team captain Afrika sizes himself up against Internazionale greats at the San Siro in Milan. (© 2009 Christina Ghubril)

Football’s powers of resurrection have rarely had a better exemplar than Martin Afrika. The 32-year-old captain for South Africa at the Homeless World Cup, which concluded Sept 13 in Milan, literally has reconstructed his identity through sport.

Before the 2008 tournament in Melbourne, for which he had qualified through an extended culling process in Western Cape, Afrika had to prove his existence to South African authorities in what turned out to be a race against time. It was a race he lost.

Put out of his home at five, imprisoned by 11 and shot four times as a member of one of the so-called number gangs in Clarke’s Estate, a “coloured” township in Cape Flats, Afrika bears scars and tattoos from a life shaped by institutionalized violence. Afrika’s brother serves in Pollsmoor maximum security prison for having murdered their father. Number gangs, with ties to similar gangs in prisons, have origins in the resettlement of mixed-race populations in Cape Flats under the 1950 Group Areas Act. Generations marginalized by apartheid still pay the cost.

Interview with Afrika, from Cape Town, Sept 17. (21:51) Download »

“He’s survived, and I don’t know how he’s done it,” says Linzi Thomas, former film producer and founder of MylifE, a life-skills program for street children. Given Cape Town’s postcard setting, that vagrancy and drug use have taken hold among small children comes as a shock. Thomas says she has encountered children as young as seven using crack cocaine.

To help in the rehabilitation process, MylifE early in its work formed a football team. After the 2008 Homeless World Cup trials, Thomas approached Afrika to offer the group’s resources, including a place to live.

Afrika credits Thomas and MylifE for bringing him back to football, which is omnipresent in Cape Flats as well as in prisons, where Afrika played 11-a-side. Once selected for the 2008 trials, he stopped using drugs. After spending his energy at football training, he found himself losing desire for alcohol, drugs and the trappings of gangsterism.

Street football, the four-on-four court variant played at the Homeless World Cup, meshes well in a city environment of limited spaces and improvised rules. Matches last 14 minutes. Although the program has yet to become rooted across South Africa, more than 500 now participate weekly in a Western Cape league on 16m-x-22m pitches chalked onto car-park pavement.

David Abrahams, co-director of South African Homeless Street Soccer, emphasizes that players resolve all conflicts during games. Given the confines in street football, play tends to be fast and physical.

A primer on South African street football featuring Abrahams, Afrika and others. (3:12) (© 2008 Demetrius Wren)

Abrahams attracted the program’s principal funder, Florida-based From Us with Love, by demonstrating the sport’s magnetic appeal in the Cape Town business district. The group’s operations manager, Mike Mastrocinque, recalls Abrahams setting up portable goalposts in parking lots. “Before you knew it,” Mastrocinque says, “you had matches going on, you had people in the community coming to watch it.”

Page 1 of 3 | Next page