A review of Ashwin Desai’s Wentworth – The Beautiful Game and the Making of Place by Kiru Naidoo
(Sunday Tribune, 15 March 2020)
Few people can tell social histories like Ashwin Desai. More especially with a specialist eye in mining the depths of ethnography. In whatever subject he picks, the sociology professor has a nifty genius for inserting himself into people’s secrets, their loves and losses, their joys and jeopardies.
Wentworth – The Beautiful Game and the Making of Place has just rolled off the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. Its centrepiece is soccer and the pivotal role of Leeds United in welding place and community.
It is seventy years since the Group Areas Act wormed its way into apartheid’s statute books. Wenties is a stepchild of that hated scrap of legislation. A tiny ghetto for Coloured people hemmed in by the racial stratification of the Bluff, Merebank and Umlazi, Wentworth has inexplicably just sauntered on the periphery, “a place where there are no museums or societies to chronicle what went before”.
We know the lowly stereotype of white Bluff and its official footwear, the flip-flop. Mixing a little but not too much, the closeted Indians of Merebank thanks to their longstanding activist tradition count themselves as a major political force. By contrast, the heroes of the freedom struggle, judges, scholars, sports people and musicians from Wentworth barely warrant a mention in the annals of history.
The sprawling 450 000 community of Africans in Umlazi on Wentworth’s far outer edges might as well be on another planet such is the social void between the communities. These are racial communities congealed in the spatial geography of historical proximity yet enforced distance. Desai takes on the burden of an intimate stranger wading through Wentworth’s disappearing oral histories and fading family albums.
The dedication page immediately gives one a sense of his matchless love for soccer and the reckless wit that roams across Desai’s 241 pages: “For my father, who drove two hours to watch me play. We lost 6-1. I scored … an own goal …”
The story begins in a bar and the gentility of braskap. He writes: “They regaled me with player names and team exploits and challenged me to record this history. I said I would. Bar-room promises are taken more seriously in my world than those made in the boardroom. It can make or break a reputation, if not your head.”
Desai sensibly avoids the academic perversion of narcissistic self-pleasuring. He tells the stories of his characters in their own words, their own voices and their own pent-up emotions. He is also wise about not privileging the dominant male voice at the expense of the “mothers, sisters, wives and lovers of the players” as sociologist Trevor Ngwane notes in the foreword.
We meet Arlene “Webster” Sherene Singh who played professional, Lorna, the owner of Young Cavaliers and her daughter Nadine who qualified as a chef on the same terms as we do Yorkshire FC’s Blondie Campbell, the soccer legends Gregory and Cheesa Baptist and Patrick “Putts” Moodley whose mother came from Kimberly and was fluent in five languages.
To situate the storyline in context, the blurb on the back cover reads: “In the early 1960s, the city of Durban racially circumscribed group areas with brutal intensity.” That brutality had a human face, which Desai masterfully ferrets out through a slew of informed sources.
We meet Lloyd Keshwar, “the walking encyclopaedia of Wentworth’s history”, Wellington Meth, Bennie Whitby and Gary Goldstone who are an indivisible part of Wentworth’s making. Elsewhere he brings in the latter day generation of the local bard, Rodney kaRoskruge, the child of shipwrecks on the Eastern Cape Coast.
Coloured is one of the most contested identities in South Africa’s bizarre race politics. Even as we mark twenty-six years of freedom, race morphs in new dimensions and sneers from fresh crevices. Casper, the son of Papa Stokes poignantly tells the author: “When it comes to blood there are no straight lines.”
On the next page, Keshwar relates the story of an uncle who made a permanent move to the white side of the apartheid fence: “… he looked like a white, had them blue eyes and the works. He went that side … met this pretty white lady and married his sweetheart. They lived in Redhill on the white side. And he’s got two children who carry the Keshwar name but were classified as white, not by their own choice, one might add.” No straight lines indeed.
Painful too is a reference to a 1991 interview given by Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier Robert McBride where he recounted playing for a white rugby club in the 1980s and the reaction of his team mates when he was picked for the A team. ‘Gary, don’t worry about it,’ said one white sportsman to another, ‘Robert is just a bushie.’
The ugliness of race was not just a black and white thing. In a fit of rage, Goldstone threw away a contract to play for Leicester City in England after an altercation with abusive colleagues peeved at his promotion at work. Goldstone recounts: “Baker and all the Indian clerks – I went in there and you know how they are … Jealous. They said to me, ‘Hey, Bushman, you got it made now, hah?’ … I took the ashtray and threw it at him, and I walked off the site, and I walked out of the gate and forgot about my money and never went back. And I lost the opportunity to go overseas.”
Contrast that with the affection in the Wentworth community for the medic, Professor Bugsy Singh who played, managed, coached and trained the iconic Cherrians club originally from Clairwood. George Moses recalls: “This guy Bugsy Singh, I have never seen a person like this. Any one of us can call him right now – whether it is a relative or an auntie – he will drop everything and come to assist you from a medical perspective.”
While the Leeds story dominates the storyline, other Wentworth teams, their coaches and supporters also get a mention as Desai connects with the present and the tremendous hope invested in the beautiful game. Desai’s Wentworth is a story of flower gardens and stylish tracksuits, crippling asthma and dog mascots, hidden sexualities and fond memories. Handed more pages he would surely have written a few volumes about a township that history almost forgot.
Kiru Naidoo is the author of Made in Chatsworth published by MicroMega www.madeinchatsworth.co.za