Is it morally acceptable to be an Arsenal fan?

Is it morally acceptable to be an Arsenal fan? This question is widely contemplated even in England, the country in which the club is nominally situated. One typical joke concerns what one should call an Arsenal fan who has done well on an intelligence test. The answer: a cheat.

If Arsenal is not a popular club in London, how can it be legitimate for it to have numerous supporters in one of Britain’s distant, former colonial possessions?

A weekend listener to radio stations in SA might conclude that only soccer played in the English Premier League is real; local football games are a flickering shadow of the original. Little wonder then that the definition of success for a local footballer is to play for a European team, or that Bafana Bafana are so often held in low esteem.

Is this a problem that the disciples of decoloniality* in our universities can solve? After all, almost all South African sport exemplifies the unaddressed legacies of colonialism, racism and black dispossession. As in other colonial societies, settlers ridiculed “indigenous pursuits”, and these were increasingly confined to rural areas.

English-speaking settlers brought with them the major team sports of the colonial middle classes: rugby and cricket. They also introduced a codified version of the beautiful game.

It would be both fascinating and valuable to recover the history of African recreational traditions to understand how they were linked to the organisation and flourishing of precolonial societies. But to resuscitate such traditions, and to ban those that displaced them, is surely as undesirable as it is impossible.

Cricket and Christianity may be aspects of colonial domination, but they may also embody truth and beauty. (Cricket, anyway.) And they can be turned against those who introduced them: soccer’s offside rule may be a western import, but so too is Karl Marx’s theory of history.

To crush the colonial powers at their own game — as Australians, Indians, Brazilians and Afrikaners have all discovered — can be deeply satisfying. If only such rewards had been available across the previous century to the men in Xhosa and coloured societies who also embraced rugby.

Football associations were thriving by the early 20th century. But the black leagues were starved of resources, and the game was remorselessly segregated. Race laws meant SA had to send either all-white or all-black teams to international events, a restriction the Confederation of African Football rejected on principle — perhaps its first — in 1957. By 1976, segregation had resulted in SA’s expulsion from Fifa.

After 1994, institutional and economic barriers remained in place. Soccer in SA is starved of financial and political resources because it lacks both the deep-seated popular enthusiasm that buoys the sport elsewhere, and the real engagement of knowledgeable supporters.


Wealthy Arsenal fans here complain that South African football is just not clean and that this is why they have abandoned it. But many Premier League clubs are the money-laundering investments of Russian oligarchs. Arsenal’s biggest shareholder is Stan Kroenke, a dubious multibillionaire who hails from a land where there is no real football.

We do not have many choices when it comes to identity. Inadvertently, “I am an Arsenal fan” may mean that what happens there matters more to you than what happens here. And, if you can’t tear yourself free from the allegedly mesmerising attractions of the colonial heartland, at least show some respect and judgment: support Crystal Palace instead.

  • Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

*Decoloniality was wrongly changed to decolonisation in the newspaper version.

Zuma’s terrible policy conference

President Jacob Zuma had a disastrous policy conference. Widespread expectations that a coalition of pro-Zuma provinces and leagues would sweep aside all opposition proved unfounded. Instead, events confirmed the analysis of sceptics who have doubted the prospects of the Zuma faction in the elective conference of the ANC due to be held in December.

Fears about political instability and policy uncertainty were stoked by Zuma’s theatrical opening address to delegates, and by the initial swagger of many of his supporters on the conference floor. As the president’s initiatives foundered one after the other, however, some broad realities became clear: Zuma has little control over leadership elections, factional consolidation, policy direction or organisational change.

First, supporters of the candidacy of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as Zuma’s successor were subdued. Dlamini-Zuma reportedly made little impact when she spoke. Her evident unsuitability to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2019 national elections inspired ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete to throw another one of her hats into the ring as an alternative “credible woman”.

For such an unlikely idea to have been aired at all indicates desperation in the Zuma camp about Dlamini-Zuma. Pressure will escalate for Zuma to identify a fresh candidate to more energetically wave the flag for KwaZulu-Natal, the premier league and the current patronage apparatus.

Second, the fragility of the coalition behind Zuma was further exposed. The incoherence of the “premier league” of maize-producing, rural provinces, was made clear by the fence-sitting of Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza.

Even the pro-Zuma KwaZulu-Natal chairperson, Sihle Zikalala, was careful to balance support for Zuma’s broader agenda with caution about the damaging impact of the Gupta family.

The Youth and Women’s Leagues still have votes to deploy in December, but they are now organisationally and intellectually impotent. The Women’s League’s decision that six men should join their delegation — because they are “less emotional” than women — marked a new low in ANC patriarchy.

In the commissions, the Youth League proved to be ineffectual in trying to deliver a carefully rehearsed script about the racial character of “monopoly capital”.

Third, the quite conservative policy agenda of the ANC emerged unscathed. With regard to the expropriation of land without compensation, black empowerment targets in the mining industry, Reserve Bank inflation targeting and the creation of a state bank, the Zuma camp’s anticipated symbolic victories all came to nothing.

Positions long supported by Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe — that the Bank’s private shareholder anomaly should be removed, that a state bank based in the Post Office should target small business finance, and that prudent negotiations are required in a fragile mining industry — all held sway.

Mantashe’s post-conference observation that capitalism is a “nuisance” — but that it is inescapable — captured the ANC’s enduring pragmatism on this issue well.

There was also little appetite for the usual rhetorical attacks on the media or the courts — presumably because their value has been demonstrated by the actions of Zuma and his associates.

Finally, various proposals for institutional and organisation change were advanced, but none was of any immediate significance. Gimmicks about the size of the top leadership — including an invitation to a defeated presidential candidate to become “second deputy president” — are meaningless in the absence of wider electoral system reform. Such wider changes cannot happen in advance of December’s watershed conference.

Zuma is down even if he is not out. In his closing address to the conference, he said the ANC has emerged both wiser and better. “We have a keen understanding of the challenges and how to overcome them,” he observed. No doubt he has a “Plan B”; all indications are that he will need one.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Practical Reason blog

This blog contains some of my opinion pieces and short essays about politics. I will also place topical personal and political writing here.

Some of my books and edited collections are listed in the sidebar to the right. I have tried to indicate their intended audiences.

The home page shows deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni at a NUM meeting in Boksburg in 2015.

In the 2014 photo above, taken at the Presidential Guesthouse, President Zuma had just returned from Moscow, amidst rumours of illness or even poisoning. He seemed fragile and vulnerable. This did not last.

Anthony Butler