The Free State K-team in England – without assegais


The Free State K-team in England – without assegais

In 1998, the South African Lucas Radebe became the beloved captain of the British soccer team Leeds United. But a century earlier, the Orange Free State Bantu Football Club toured Britain and fared less well. By MAX DU PREEZ.


WELL, that name came later. In 1899, the team's official name was the Orange Free State Kaffir Football Club. The k-word looks rough when written down, but it was the team’s official name and so used as such here.

It was only in 1906 that the first South African rugby team went overseas to play. A South African cricket team toured Britain in 1894. The Boer prisoners of war in Ceylon played rugby, soccer and cricket against local teams and British soldiers as early as 1901.

The 1899 tour of 49 matches by the black Free State team began just four weeks before war broke out between Britain and the Boer republics of the Free State and Transvaal on October 11, 1899.

The team played in orange jerseys and black shorts — the Football Evening News announced beforehand that the team would wear “proper football costume” and would not be allowed “to carry assegais when charging”.

The tour was big news in Britain and clearly showcased the deep racial prejudices of the nation, with many highly racist cartoons. It turned into a kind of ethnological show business.

The arch-imperialist and minister responsible for the colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, was chosen to kick off the match against Aston Villa in Birmingham. The newspaper Scottish Sport noted: “Kick at a Kaffir! The colonial secretary would probably prefer to kick [Paul] Kruger!”

(Much of my information comes from an academic research paper by the former South African sociologist Chris Bolsmann, then of Aston University and now of California.)


Soccer was initially popularised in South Africa by British soldiers. Clubs were established in the old Natal from 1879, and after the discovery of diamonds and gold the sport also took root in Kimberley and Johannesburg. In 1892, the South African Football Association (Safa), only for whites, was established. Cecil John Rhodes was the honorary president and the presidents of Transvaal and the Free State, Paul Kruger and FW Reitz, were patrons.

The Free State, especially Bloemfontein, was very English in the last decades of the 19th century, and by 1876 St Andrew’s College regularly played against the Cathedral Choir in Bloemfontein. English merchants and officials from Heilbron, Lindley, Bethlehem and Kroonstad also established clubs but the mining town of Jagersfontein was the most active, with tournaments such as Mines vs. Towns, Mother Country vs. All Comers and Home Born vs. Colonial Born.

Black Free Staters learned the sport in the mines and as spectators, and there were even a few matches between white and black teams in Jagersfontein.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

The 16-member team of the Orange Free State Kaffir Football Club, under the captaincy of Joseph Twayi, departed from Cape Town to Southampton aboard the SS Gaika in August 1899. The tour was organised by Safa and financed by the British clubs.

Incidentally, Twayi, a vegetable trader, became involved in politics upon his return, and in 1915 he was the treasurer of the SA Native National Congress, the predecessor of the ANC.

The media in South Africa was sceptical. The Cape Argus wrote on August 10, 1899: “The whole affair is farcical as it is unsportsmanlike, and smacks very much of hippodrome. Western Province ‘soccer’ enthusiasts can scarcely credit the fact that a gang of Kafirs should seriously be expected to give an exhibition worthy of the name, and the British football public will soon realise this fact. Probably the enterprising financiers will rake in the shekels, but every white man south of the Zambezi not directly interested in the venture will regret the whole proceedings.”

But in Britain, there was great anticipation. There had long been an appetite for exhibitions and performances by black Africans, most of them “freak shows” like the Khoe woman Saartjie Baartman who was exhibited naked in 1810.

In 1899, circus owner Frank Fillis took a group of Zulus and a few Afrikaners to London where they held mock battles, sang and danced. Here is a short film clip of their arrival in Southampton.

The star of this show was the singer and dancer Peter Kushana Lobengula, who claimed to be the son of the last Ndebele king, Lobengula. It was advertised as “Savage South Africa, a vivid, realistic and picturesque representation of life in the wilds of Africa”. The show was attended daily by thousands of Londoners.

(Two decades later, a Koranna, Franz Taibosch, known as the “Wild Dancing Bushman” with the stage name Clicko, was also a big hit with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Britain and America.)

The Free State team did not perform well against the British clubs and were laughed at by the spectators. They scored at least one goal in every match, but according to the British press their opponents merely allowed it.

The team had previously only played on hard surfaces rather than the soft grass of Britain and didn’t even have proper soccer boots with studs for the first part of the tour. They were also clearly inexperienced and poorly coached, as reports of the matches stated that their goalkeeper sometimes left the goal and acted as a striker.

The SS Gaika leaving Cape Town for Southampton in August 1899.
The SS Gaika leaving Cape Town for Southampton in August 1899.

The Berkshire Chronicle wrote: “The Kaffirs might be able to give a junior team a good game, for some are speedy and they adopt worrying tactics, but they have little knowledge of what to do with the ball.” The Richmond and Twickenham Times: “Whatever the cause, it appeared almost impossible for ‘Mr Kaffir’ to kick a ball properly, even under the easiest of conditions.”

One must remember that the British soccer clubs were then the best in the world. At the end of their tour, the Free Staters played a match against a French team in Roubaix, France, won 3–1, and received great praise. The goalkeeper, one Adolph, was acclaimed as being of world standard.

The Anglo-Boer War was in full swing by the end of October 1899. The British were pleased to hear that the team was on the British side. According to The Football News, Twayi said: “We like England very much for its freedom. The people are so good to us, and they treat us splendidly. The kindness makes me rejoice, for we Kaffirs have no freedom allowed by the Boers. If the British fight we fight for them, for we would like our revenge.” He told Scottish Sports: “If Queen Victoria fights we fight for her, and 25,000 Basothos march through the Orange Free State to have their revenge.”

The team departed by ship for Cape Town on January 6, 1900.

Postscript: Most of the members of the team were Basotho. There is again a Bantu Football Club in Lesotho, based in Mafeteng.

♦ VWB ♦

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