Kindness of Strangers – A Liverpool Fan’s Postcards from South Africa

Globetrotting Liverpool fan, Pete Martin, was apprehensive of a racially-tense Cape Town, South Africa. What he found instead were the surprising kindness of fellow football fans and a bit of home away from home.
Kindness of Strangers - A Liverpool Fan's Postcards from Cape Town
Kindness of Strangers – A Liverpool Fan’s Postcards from Cape Town

I walk to the football ground. The magnificent bowl, built for the 2010 World Cup, sits on the waterfront at Green Point. From the busy waterfront shopping centre, I stroll along the Fanwalk with the early evening sun providing an orange sky beyond Signal Hill. As I enter the stadium, two men in Everton shirts walk past. I smile and say hello – a little bit of home from home.

I stand inside the empty stadium looking down at the deep green grass shimmering in the last of the day’s sunshine. Three massive tiers of seats are unoccupied; only the small side section around me is being used. The ground has a capacity of fifty-five thousand, reduced from World Cup times, yet there will be less than two thousand fans here tonight. Its poor utilisation since the World Cup has led to calls for the stadium to be demolished less than six years after it was built.

I am blocking the way. As I turn around, I realise it is the Evertonians who wish to get past me. I jokingly tell them that I won’t move because of their shirts. After their initial confusion, I explain that I am from Liverpool and, whilst a Liverpool fan, it’s wonderful to see the blue shirts from my hometown. One of the brothers, Jeffrey, tells me that the family of four brothers have supported Everton since the 1984 FA Cup Final. A final, of course, famous for Andy Gray’s winning goal, headed almost out of the hands of the Watford keeper, and a trophy win that spurred Everton into matching Liverpool at the top of the English game for the remainder of that decade.

I take my seat. To my left, level with the halfway line, the hardcore Ajax Cape Town fans gather. Mostly black or coloured, but with one or two white faces amongst them, they are dressed in the red and white taken from the Amsterdam club of the same name. They bang on drums and blow on vuvuzelas raucously. The crowd builds as the game starts but it looks meagre in the vast stadium. It’s poor quality play and the first half finishes with Cape Town Ajax winning one nil.

As I watch four rotund black women dance and sing nearby, their hips almost elastic, one of the Evertonians hands me a beer and invites me to sit with them. How can I refuse my first ever drink offered by an Evertonian?

The second half disappears in football chat. The two brothers and their two sons are here plus some cousins and friends. The family are coloured, rather than black, and have a hint of Malaysian descent in their facial features. Two of their friends are in Liverpool FC shirts – one in red and one in the black of the away kit. I hadn’t noticed them earlier. They all sit together enjoying the game – another bit of home from home for me.

I take one of the boys with me to buy some beer in return for their kindness. However, the concession stand is closed. Back at our seats, I apologise. Surprisingly they laugh but then point under their seats, where there are twelve more beers. They tell me this always happens. The beer stand, run by whites, closes just after half-time. They offer me another beer. I check with them whether they really are Evertonians as I am not used to this level of kindness.

In a rare moment of seriousness when I ask about the World Cup in 2010, Jeffrey tells me that the ticket prices were too expensive for most of the locals and so they had tickets for only one of the games. They are shocked when I inform them about ticket prices in England. Tonight, we have each paid sixty rand (£2.50) for our tickets. In an attempt at humour, Jeffrey says he is just pleased that they are allowed in. I don’t understand what he means, so he explains. He was a teenager at the tail end of the apartheid regime and in those days he would not have been allowed to come to sporting events like the World Cup or a game such as this. As I have no words to be able to respond to this unbelievable situation, I point out that all the players we are watching tonight are black, with the exception of the tall, white-skinned and blonde-haired Dutch goalkeeper for Cape Town Ajax. On loan from Ajax Amsterdam, he looks so out of place, like some kind of interloper.

I talk to the brothers about my recent experiences with a football academy in Ghana and how different it is from what I have seen here. The cycling tour I have just done kept us away from the real South Africa, but I experienced a small glimpse of real life at the Noluthando kindergarten in the Khayelitsha township today. Jeffrey is convinced things are improving. His son has much better opportunities than he had. I guess this is what we all wish for. He confides that most senior jobs are still mainly white (and male) dominated. Jeffrey proudly owns his own house and he says his father, who is still alive, could not possibly have foreseen this. Understandably, his father is still bitter towards the whites. Jeffrey tells me that he can remember that his father, as a seller of fruit and vegetables in the market, was made to work by his white owner for three solid days without food or sleep. He remembers walking for over an hour with his mother to take his father some food and water and then witnessing the white man kick the plate of food out of his father’s hands as he was taking too long to eat. Jeffrey says that the blacks and coloureds have to move on but that the scars run deep.

Another round of beers is shared and we celebrate an Ajax Cape Town win. The vuvuzelas blast a final time and I wander out into the night with my new friends. We exchange emails and photographs and one of the Liverpool FC fans gives me advice on where to watch the Liverpool game tomorrow evening. What an evening and what hospitality.

I walk back to my apartment through the waterfront, past the dazzling jewellery shops and new car showrooms selling goods that most of the city’s people can’t afford. The footbridge over the quay lights up in the colours of the rainbow.

An aerial view of Cape Town.

The Next Day

This evening I will follow the kind instructions from last night and find the bar recommended to me by my fellow Liverpool FC fan: the ‘Oriental Sports Bar’ in Observatory. I take a taxi there. Away from the posh avenues of downtown, many of the shops are boarded up and there are no whites to be seen. The strong wind blows litter wildly along the dark streets and I feel a little afraid far away from the better parts of the city.

The taxi stops outside a block of closed shops. The driver tells me that this is the place. I’m not sure it is. The metal shutters suggest everything is closed. He points to a small sign above the thick metal gates. He’s right, it is the ‘Oriental Sports Bar’. Should I do this? As I contemplate turning back, the driver shouts to an enormous black man behind a gate, “Football, Liverpool game?”

The bouncer beams. “Yes, come.” I wind down the window to make sure he sees that I am white. It makes no difference. He bounds to the car in one large step. “Come, come.” He opens the taxi door for me.

I quickly arrange a pick-up time with the taxi driver. Maybe I should also leave a last message with my wife. Beyond the metal gate is a set of bare concrete steps. I take them apprehensively. I jump as I hear the gate snap shut behind me. At the top, I pass through another metal gate into a dark, dingy pub. A long wooden bar runs along one wall. There are a few people in already, but only one white face way down at the other end of the room. Yet, once I am used to my surroundings, I become aware that there is a low murmur of joyful chatter. A barmaid laughs with a customer. There is a dimly lit room off to the right and a large screen projecting the heart-warming liver bird emblem of Liverpool FC.

I proceed to the bar and request a beer. As if I am here on a regular basis – maybe all whites look the same – the barmaid offers me a warm welcome, “Make sure you get a seat near the screen. Busy tonight.” I look around; it’s not. Liverpool play West Ham in the FA Cup and the likelihood is that a reserve team will be picked because of the amount of games the club has, so it’s not the biggest attraction. Notwithstanding this, I do as I am told.

The screen comes to life and the lighting is turned down further. The team sheets go up and then the screen freezes. Typical, why didn’t I just stay in the posh waterfront area? There is a scraping sound to my left and a couple of men are moving a table. Behind them, I notice for the first time, two big displays with Liverpool FC paraphernalia: large liver bird emblems and row after row of pictures showing people in Liverpool FC shirts. A big sign proclaims it to be the “Liverpool FC Supporters Club, Cape Town”.

A bit of home away from home. Pete Martin with the Liverpool Fan Club, Cape Town Branch.

As I smile to myself, the singing starts. I look behind me and the barmaid is right. It is busy. A room full of black faces sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. I stand too and join them for my national anthem.

The game isn’t good, yet the atmosphere here is. The banter is so funny, particularly from the fans sat at table behind, who lampoon everything Christian Benteke tries to do up on the big screen. Midway through the first half, another beer is deposited in front of me. Denver, my neighbour, clinks bottles with me and we continue to watch.

At half-time, I return the favour of the beer and Denver and I chat to the guys behind. I drink slowly because I have a long drive tomorrow. At full-time, when my new friends realise I am actually from Liverpool, I am asked a hundred questions about Anfield. They want me to continue drinking with them and they won’t let me leave or pay for my beers. My taxi driver comes into the pub to rescue me. We take photographs in front of the Supporters Club wall and reluctantly I resist this incredible hospitality.

In the taxi on the way back, the driver laughs even more when I describe last night’s warm interactions at the Cape Town Stadium that completely complement tonight’s. I explain that I am having a hard time reconciling this with what I witnessed sightseeing today at Robben Island and the general treatment of the blacks by the whites. My taxi driver-come-philosopher tells me that if they showed any bitterness it would mean that the whites had actually won. There is never anything to add to taxi-driver logic.

Pete Martin

Pete Martin is a traveller, author and journalist. Pete is a Liverpool FC fan and is passionate about football at all levels. Pete’s most recent book is entitled “Fantafrica”. Soul searching for his true calling, the one activity to give himself up to that will replace ‘work’, he is invited to a volunteering project – developing a football academy in Ghana.