Thursday, December 2, 2010

Disturbing allegations against South African team coach Makalakalane

While pundits whine about having to figure out where Qatar is and worry about overly long flights from one Russian World Cup match to another, players for the South African women's national team have come forward with charges that their coach, Augustine Makalakalane, sexually harassed the women and was openly, aggressively homophobic, declaring (for example) he only wanted "straight ladies on the team." Two former players charge that they were dropped from the team when they refused their coach's advances. They describe abusive behavior and a lack of respect for women and for the women's game.

Makalakalane (pictured here, center) is already in trouble with the South African Football Association, as his team failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup when they lost to Equatorial Guinea and came in 3rd in the Africa Women's Championship this year. Makalakalane refused to call up any of the South African players living and playing abroad (Equitorian Guinea, on the other hand, is stacked with international players who were rushed through eligibility procedures), thereby cheating the team of the wisdom those more experienced players might have brought to the squad.

Players describe him as having a "stinking attitude" towards women. Banyana player Nthabiseng "Moemish" Matshaba alleges that the coach made direct advances toward her, and dropped her from the team for not sleeping with him - just before the African Women's Championship. According to Sameer Naik's story for IOL Sport, Matshaba
said she had been 'heart-broken' after she was left out of the squad, but will refuse to play under Makalakalane. Naik, "More allegations against Makalakalane," 11/27/2010
No one should have to endure such abusive behavior, and no one should have to feel that playing on a team requires their silence and complicity.

This story reminds me of a hypothesis I've been entertaining for the past year: FIFA's involvement in the women's game is in the best situations a mixed bag, and for a much of the world it has created serious problems - one which stunts, even prevents the development of national teams around the globe.

FIFA only got involved in the women's game in the late 1980s, after a Norwegian official became the first woman to speak at one of its congresses, with the demand that FIFA pay attention to the women's game. FIFA took on the organization of a World Cup in baby steps - at first refusing to associate its "brand" with women by calling its tournament anything but a "FIFA World Cup." But lo and behold, people cared, the games were great and there were real crowds in attendance.

Today, all FIFA associated national programs are supposed to have a women's program.  In order to submit a women's team to World Cup qualifications, that women's program must be run by the existing structures of the countries (men's) football association.

From the late 1980s through the 1990s, in those countries with women's soccer programs, the groups organizing national leagues and teams were forced (I don't think that's too strong a word) under the umbrella structure of the FIFA affiliated men's national association. This means that in a lot of countries, men who had enforced bans against women's soccer as recently as the mid 1980s were now charged with taking over women's soccer.

In South Africa (I am oversimplifying its history here), prior to its absorption by the South African Football Association, the South Africa Women's Football Association managed the national program. SAWFA's history is interesting, as they were originally white and colored, then integrated - there was a Black women's association as well - the South African Women's Soccer Association - which merged with the SAWFA before it was taken over by the SAFA. Also interesting: the period during which FIFA's involvment with the women's game forced the absorption of the women's association into SAFA - late 1980s/early 1990s - coincides with the transition from Apartheid - the first universal election was held in 1994.

By 1994, women's football was administered through the SAFA, and this is where the story starts getting very ugly. According to Cynthia Pelak's 2009 overview of women's soccer in South Africa (from which I take this history), "as more women showed up at their local soccer pitches, highly gendered spaces, more overt power struggles between men and women emerged." Around this time, serious charges against male owners and managers emerged, as they were accused of sexual harassment and financial mismanagement (and corruption). Players asked the SAFA for help and were ignored until a commissioned was formed in 1996. As a result, women's soccer - which had been "affiliated" with the SAFA - was brought fully into its organizational structure, as a subcommittee, allowing the women's programs more access to SAFA resources and adminsitrative support. But this did nothing to change the basic problems regarding the absence of women from leadership roles in the SAFA itself.

Pelak interviewed a SAFA administrator about the situation in Johannesburg in the 1990s:
The sport grew very rapidly and in 1994 we started having a lot of problems with men. They saw women’s sports growing and they wanted to come and start running it. We had huge troubles in those years – 1994, 95, and 96. It was really a tormented time for all of us. A lot of the women were threatened by these men and their kids intimidated. It led to the police being involved and all sorts of mess. And, unfortunately the men who were trying to take over the running of women’s football had connections with the federation [SAFA] and the federation supported them instead of the women. The people in charge did not take us seriously. We had to go to the Minister of Sports. And there was a huge commission for men and women in soccer [along with other concerns] and it took about three years to complete. It resulted in women being rendered powerless. It resulted in the federation disbanding women’s soccer as a separate entity and incorporating it into the men’s structure.   - SAFA adinsitrator interviewed by Cynthia Pelak, "Women and gender in South African Soccer: a brief history" in Soccer and Society (December, 2009)
To return to the emerging story regarding Makalakalane: For the sake of argument, let's assume these allegations are true. Let's assume that things would have to have gotten really bad for these stories to come out - for no female player who makes such a charge will do so with an expectation that she will go on to have a career playing for her national team, especially given the ongoing betrayal of women's trust in administrative structures like the SAFA.

Furthermore, given the grisly statistics regarding the numbers of South African women who experience sexual violence, and the frequency with which women footballers are subjected to extra-harassment for participating in a sport coded as masculine, it's very likely that players on this team are all too familiar with the dynamics of sexual abuse. And all too familiar with the systemic indifference to the problem in judicial and employment spheres.

Players come forward with these charges with the hope of making the national team better but they do so with few illusions about the struggle required to make such changes.

The team's manager, Fran Hilton-Smith, is a highly visible advocate within the SAFA. Patrick Baloyi reports that while players said they told Hilton-Smith about the situation, she was not given anything specific enough to respond to, until now. "Maybe the players were scared to talk," she posited, "because they wanted to play." In its investigation, apparently the SAFA brought a host of former players in for a confidential discussion of the crisis. This - bringing in senior and retired players - seems like a step in the right direction - and let's hope it is part of a broader effort to include such women in the administrative structures of the game.

A stronger female presence in the organization of football associations won't fix everything by a long stretch, but it has got to force some positive changes by at the very least raising awareness about what sexual harassment is, and how toxic it can be to any collective - I can't imagine anything destroying one's relationship to a team and the sport more than the systemic harassment these players are describing.

In any case, this is a reminder that the FIFA World Cup is a pop-up nation unto itself - hosting a World Cup is no magic elixir, and FIFA is not a human rights organization.  It's controlling presence in the sport works not in the service of the greater good, but in the service of globalization and to the benefit of the politico-economic forces invested not in making a better world, but in selling you an image of a better world, so that you can forget about the shitty one you actually live in.

Sorry for sour tone, but it's hard to put a positive spin on this story.

A few of the articles on the charges against Makalakalane:

"Good as Gone - 'If Fired, Life Goes on'" Sunday World (November 21, 2010)
Patrick Baloyi, "'Rude predator' 'randy coach' too hands-on" Sunday World (November 21, 2010)
Sameer Naik, "More allegations against Makalakalane" Sunday Independent (November 29, 2010)

And: I come across this story initially via the Justin Campaign's website. Glad the anti-homophobia campaign is reporting it, but I must confess that I was a bit turned off by their afterthought of a headline: "It's not just for men."


  1. Unfortunately like every other occupation the field of coaching has it's share of unprofessional and even lecherous individuals, and yes that includes women as well. I have seen some of the worst examples of that with my own eyes. As you mention the field of women and sport is young and there are no developed global standards and in that vacuum is the mirror of the mores of the society to which it belongs. But it's changing. This week I was reading an interview with the Qatari players who are saying they would rather play without headgear and in shorts, but they will take playing period. You cannot turn a dinosaur on a dime. One step at a time. It took hundreds of years to improve women's rights in OUR civilization.

    South Africa is changing. I've spent days in places like Langa township and there are good men there who are making the world a better place for women and children. Those people have nothing. They live on top of each other in cardboard shacks the size of a closet without a cent of healthcare or anyone looking out for them. The President has three wives and has been tried for rape. Rape is statistically more common for women than learning to read. One in four men admits to committing rape. And until someone can change that there will always be some wingnut jackarse abusing their power, either with a whistle or a gun. There isn't much difference.

    Wherever you are Eudy Simelane I hope it's a beautiful place and one day we can play together.

  2. Somewhat topical and interesting reference:


  3. Thank you for your comments, and for the link to the New York Times video portrait of the lesbian soccer team The Chosen Few (associated with the organization Forum for the Empowerment of Women).

  4. The FEW back in the news:


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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