The small band of teenagers who formed a soccer team at the Orlando Boys Club back in 1934 could not have foreseen the impact their actions would have on football - and indeed culture - in South Africa today.
Andries ‘Pele Pele’ Mkhwanazi was a boxing instructor at the Boys Club who knew football talent when he saw it. He encouraged the formation of a team in 1937 and a year later the youngsters were competing – barefoot and without colours or kit – in a minor division of the Johannesburg Bantu Football Association (JBFA). In 1939 the boys broke away from the Orlando Boys Club and reconvened at the home of Pele Pele. A strong disciplinarian, Pele Pele commanded the boys respect and dubbed them “amapirate” when they abandoned the Boys Club.
Though armed with a fearsome name, it would take another ten years before the skull and crossbones logo appeared, and then only as a badge on black blazers. Popular pirate movies of the time were the inspiration for the insignia, but the logo only became commercially available to fans when Rankus Maphisa started a silk screening business in his back yard in 1959.
As important as the growing strength of the football team was the part it played in its community, motivating people to claim land to live on in an era when black South Africans despaired of having even the most meager home. The team gave people hope, not only with a “shoe-shine” football style that set its players apart from others, but with its growing power to encourage their upliftment. The club became an “extended family” that offered protection to its members and Wednesday night football meetings became social upliftment events. While never a political force, Orlando Pirates was seen then – as it is now – as a team that cares deeply about its supporters.
Pirates has always used its position to improve the game of football, from forming the Orlando African Football Association in 1945 to help grow the game in the township, to joining the South African Soccer League in KwaZulu Natal because the league was non-racial.
Fans believe that it is not by coincidence that the chairman of the organisation that won the 2010 soccer bid for South Africa was also the chairman of Orlando Pirates Football Club. It is an innovative club that believes in investing time in the development of their industry, and current chairman Dr Irvin Khoza is adamant that the club continue to grow football as a whole.
Flash a badge with a skull and crossbones on it at almost any South African and they will know you’re talking Orlando Pirates.
From small beginnings in 1937, Orlando Pirates Football Club has become more than just one of the most successful soccer teams in South Africa: It is ingrained in the Culture of the culture of the country. For around eight to ten million fans, there’s no grey area. It’s black and white!