The power of football to unite even the most bitter and cruel of enemies has ever been apparent.
In fact, the world’s most beautiful game has in the past halted fiery wars, in the case of several notable World Cup truces.
English football, for instance, during World War II showed how sport can heal and unify during times of crisis.
And then during the Olympics, ostensibly, all warring nations are implored to set down their weapons, and in fact many do.
But we are not talking about the World Cup or the Olympics, are we?
Some 32 years ago, Tembisa – a large township situated to the north of Africa’s busiest airstrip OR Tambo International Airport – had turned into a ‘war zone’.
Deep in the middle of a frowned upon era – apartheid – Tembisa, formed in 1957 when blacks were resettled from Alexandra and other areas, sectional wars had heightened. There was no end in sight.
With everyone focused on the ills of apartheid, there was no time to pay attention to the feuding sections of Gauteng’s second largest township.
The so-called ‘long arm of the law’ was no solution either. It was a reign of terror as dreaded gangsters wreaked havoc at the slightest provocation.
“Gangster boys called themselves toasters and they would terrorise the township,” says 62-year-old Finny Mathebula, who witnessed all the mayhem.
“It all started when they killed a boy from my section (Welamlambo) in 1988. Boys from my section then retaliated and killed one guy and then the other guys came and killed two, guys from my section killed four and then they killed six.
“It became an endless cycle over the next four years. One that was getting out of hand by the day. And one with no solution in sight. “We were living like we were in an army camp,” Mathebula tells FARPost.
By his own admission, even the elders had run out of ideas to put an end to the ‘madness’.
“We didn’t know how to end this thing; you could be sitting somewhere and then you’d hear that your family has been attacked. When you return home, you’d have to go and kill the same number or more in revenge.”
Understandably, Mathebula and many others from his generation would have been ‘happy’ to face off with their rivals. But the gangsters opted to hurt each other’s family members. It was easier, ‘safer’ and it cut deepest.
“If we were hitting each other knowing I’m fighting you, it’d be okay, but having my kid grabbed and cut into pieces was just so devastating,” adds the father of six.
Mathebula, in his younger days tried his hand at football, coming close to turning out for Mamelodi Sundowns around the period Zola Mahobe bought the flamboyant club.
Some four years later, Mathebula had shifted focus to his businesses that included three salons in the township.
But he understood how much football could unite a fractured community, torn asunder by violence.
And so, with a group of friends in 1992, they started mobilising for a friendly game of soccer between young men who, not 24 hours earlier, had been trying to kill one another.
Bakone FC would take on Zamalek FC in a game they all loved as a community. At least in their minds, the 90 minutes they would play would be the most peaceful.
Weapons would be thrown aside, and skills would be on display at the Kalambazoo grounds, some 600m from where former Orlando Pirates striker Jerry Sikhosana grew up.
“It was to create peace and end gangsterism, so we called it the Peace Games,” explains Mathebula.
Little did he know that years later, the ‘Peace Games’ would present a platform for another Kalambazoo youngster, Themba ‘Mshishi’ Zwane, born during that ugly era in 1989, who would go on to become South Africa’s most prized footballer on the domestic scene in the year 2020.
“We had no budget, we didn’t pay, we didn’t afford, people volunteered (for things like refereeing).
“I was running salons in the township, so I ran the Games from my pocket. The winning team was getting R1 000, and I had to take it from the till to come and pay,” he adds.
In the first edition of the festive tournament, no one really paid attention to the scores. No one griped about fouls or penalties. Weapons were set aside and the boys played a game that would bring them together.
Upon their toes, a humble soccer ball danced, and between their feet the threads of peace, weaving in and out to stitch together the fabric of a broken community.
Thereafter, as the young men headed back to their respective section after Zamalek triumphed, they knew that they would be shooting at their ‘friends’.
Football had turned them from foe to pal. They had learned of one another’s families and there was no way they could shoot with knowledge like that.
What started as the Peace Games between two teams then grew, with the third edition named Philly’s Games after the founder.
“I thought I was being cool calling myself Philly instead of Finny and the name stuck. So, when it was time to name the games, I had to go with the name people knew,” he explains how the Games were named.
With the ‘war’ a thing of the past, the 13-day festive tournament started growing beyond the imagination of the men and women that joined in to organise it.
This year 16 teams participated with Isithembiso FC being crowned the 2020 champions at the Philly’s Games, pocketing R100 000 for their efforts.
“The Philly’s Games now attract crowds of more than 13 000 spectators daily and hosts professional players in huge numbers.
“Most importantly the Games plough back into the community of Tembisa by either donating money or giving gifts to the homeless and HIV homes, they also donate kits to schools in the community.”
The tournament would later turn into a conveyor belt of talent with youngsters playing there going on to grace the country’s best football venues.
The late Emmanuel ‘Scara’ Ngobese featured at some point, Jabu Pule (now Mahlangu) also had a dance there while the likes of Teko Modise and his former Orlando Pirates teammate Benson Mhlongo also graced Tembisa grounds in years past.
“Benson Mhlongo was player of the tournament five times,” recalls Mathebula.
The Games grew beyond just Tembisa. They are no longer aimed at invoking a ceasefire. But they have become a permanent festive fixture. In fact, a festive season without the Philly’s is unimaginable for the Tembisa folk.
“I want to clarify this, you can’t develop a player in 13 days, but we have given people a platform,” he rightly acknowledges.
And Zwane, a man Mathebula is proud to have seen raw at the Games in his younger days, is grateful for the platform.
“We made friends at the Philly’s Games,” he says, as if to validate Mathebula’s story on how the tournament began.
“But more than anything, we rubbed shoulders with people we looked up to, and we learnt that it was possible to play in the PSL,” the reigning Footballer of the Season says.
He recalls playing alongside Modise, a man who went on to be crowned South Africa’s best footballer twice successively, former Bafana Bafana gunman Katlego ‘Killer’ Mphela and Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane, among others.
“There were scouts there, guys like Barnes Bapela (former Sundowns scout) would come,” says the Bafana Bafana midfielder, who was spotted by scouts at the games.
But, 29 years on, Mathebula still feels he could have done more.
Even hearing beautiful testimonials from some of the widowed women who sell food during the games on how their lives are transformed after the tournament is never enough.
“I think I didn’t do enough,” he says sombrely. “I’ve been knocking doors to pursue the development side in a proper way.
“My wish was to run a fully-fledged academy, give bursaries and link the boys with some big teams. I’ve been struggling for the past five years,” he explains.
However, for one fleeting, all-too-brief day, the game brought a feuding community together.
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By Mthokozisi Dube