THE story of how Bethuel Mokgosinyana launched one of South Africa’s most famous and formidable soccer teams is also the story of how South African popular culture was shaped.
It began in 1937, two years before Mokgosinyana arrived on the scene, with the formation of the Orlando Boys Club — one of a network of boys’ and girls’ recreational clubs established on the Reef in the 1930s.
Sam "Baboon Shepherd" Shabangu, one of Pirates’ original players, recalled: "We had everything [at the club] except football, so we asked: Why don’t we have a football team?"
Without boots, or any other kit, the Orlando Boys’ Club team started to play, under the enthusiastic guidance of the team’s first coach, Pele Pele Mkhwanazi. In 1939, Mkhwanazi tied his team’s fortunes to Bethuel Mokgosinyana, a relatively affluent factory foreman, self-styled social worker and devout Christian, who became the team’s first president.
Mokgosinyana donated his former team’s kit of black jerseys and white shorts to the Pirates, making black and white the official team colours.
The first kit featured a large "P" emblazoned on the chest (Mokgosinyana’s previous team had been called Puur Vuur). The name Pirates came from a popular action movie and was suggested by the goalkeeper at the time, Reggie "Hasie" Nkosi.
Mokgosinyana campaigned to link the club and the township in which it was started, transforming Pirates into a symbol of Orlando.
Mokgosinyana, who said he would have been a priest if not for football, began and ended Wednesday evening team meetings at his Orlando East home with a prayer.
On their way to a match, the players would not speak to anyone on the train, only nodding if anyone spoke to them
The night before a game, the Pirates players would sleep at Mokgosinyana’s house where they would go through a backyard ritual. Mokgosinyana would take an ember from the fire, place it on the ground and then cover it with a fatty substance that would create a great deal of smoke. When he struck a match and put it on the ember, the smoke would vanish in the flames as the oily fat caught alight. In an oblique way it evoked the spirit of Mokgosinyana’s previous club, Puur Vuur (Pure Fire).
On their way to a match, the players would not speak to anyone on the train, only nodding if anyone spoke to them. In many sporting codes, clubs and players have their particular superstitions; remaining silent on the journey to the game was Pirates’ version.
Many Orlando residents supported the Pirates because they believed that football was an excellent way to develop self-respect and civic mindedness among the youth — a healthy alternative to them joining the tsotsis.
Researched by Gillian Anstey with acknowledgment and thanks to:
• " Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa by Peter Alegi (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press)
• " Orlando Pirates — 65th Anniversary 1937-2002 (booklet produced for Pirates by Kick Off magazine)