Bidvest Wits: The ‘white team’ that broke ranks

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Exactly a day after Bidvest Wits played its last game, marking the end of an era one can only think ‘things do end, but memories last forever’.

The Clever Boys are no more after Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila Football Club bought their franchise on the eve of the club’s century celebrations.

One quick recollection George Mogotsi, who has spent the last 36 years at the club and Derek Blanckensee, who also spent over three decades with the team, have is the infamous breakaway from the then National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) during the height of apartheid in the 80s.

The NPSL was the title of a South African association football league, between 1971 and 1995. During those years, the league, however, had three completely different organisations. In 1971–77 it was only for Black South African teams including Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs, Moroka Swallows Big XV and Zulu Royals.

Then it merged with National Football League, which previously had been organised only for White South African players in 1959–77. The two leagues together formed a new topflight “non-racial” football league in 1978–84 (also named NPSL), where the “white teams” could field a maximum of three black players.

When the NSL was introduced in 1985, Wits were part of the teams that campaigned in the revamped professional division in the country.

The Students, then a “white team” had no hesitation in joining the likes of Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs in the newly established NSL at the height of apartheid.

Blanckensee recalls how Wits broke numerous apartheid laws to play in the townships without permits. And there is one Soweto outing he remembers vividly as though it were yesterday.

“I was on the bus with the team when we went into Soweto to play out first match in a township. We had been warned by the government that we would be breaking the law, but Raymond Hack and Ronnie Schloss (Chairman and President at the time) responded that if needs be we should be arrested and detained, but we would not apply for a permit,” Blanckensee says.

Luckily, on that particular day The Students’ bus made it to the Orlando Stadium without being stopped.

“The old Orlando Stadium had a big sand parking area on the east side. As the bus approached it seemed to us that the whole crowd was standing in the parking area instead of being inside the stadium,” Blanckensee says of his first visit to the township. It was jam packed. This ‘brave white team’ had attracted a massive crowd.

“To be honest, as a young guy going into a township for the first time, this made me a little nervous. As the bus turned into the parking area, the crowd, as one, broke out into applause. They were there to welcome us, and presumably to recognise the stand we had taken against the authorities,” he says.

Mogotsi recalls another time when Schloss landed in trouble with apartheid police over breaking similar curfews.

“I remember playing at Orlando Stadium and our bus windows were broken after we beat Kaizer Chiefs. Professor Schloss was arrested for being in a township (as a white man). It was not easy to be honest,” he says, adding that they ended up adopting Mbombela Stadium as their home base.

Mogotsi says the coming in of Zephania Nxumalo, a former African Wanderers star, who hailed from Durban as well as Mike Mangena and Mike Ntombela changed everything.

“The coming in of black players changed everything. We were playing good football and we were a progressive team,” he says.

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By Mthokozisi Dube

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