Football and feminism: South African football still grappling with toxic masculinity

Women are becoming increasingly visible in what was previously considered "male dominated" sports. But they face numerous challenges.

It was a rollercoaster ride for South African women in football in 2019. Banyana Banyana appeared at their first World Cup and won plenty of admirers even if no games. While Desiree Ellis’ team may have gone some way towards re-defining attitudes among the general public, South African football still requires transformation from within.

All too frequently, reports of male South African footballers or coaches abusing or harassing women emerge in newspapers.

Former Bafana Bafana player Eric September spent 13 years in prison for the murder and rape of his wife between his arrest in 1997 and release in 2010. Another ex-South African international, Augustine Makalakalane, was relieved of his Banyana Banyana coaching duties in 2011 amid allegations of sexual harassment and homophobia.

Many allegations against men in South African football which emerge in newspapers go unproven in court and seemingly lead to no consequences for the accused.

Such accusations cannot on their own be used to measure the scale of rape culture within South African football. However, the words of another former Bafana international offer some insight into the culture within men’s dressing rooms.

“The dressing room is a very testosterone-driven false world. A lot of the guys get sucked into talking about how many girls they took home last night and what car they’re driving,” Matthew Booth, who played for Bafana from 1999-2010, told Extra Time Media.

“Whenever I give talks to guys — whoever wants to listen — I say we’ve got to change that topic to what startup you’ve just created, or which degree you’re studying, or which book you’re reading. That’s a big issue in the changeroom that I’ve always had.”

However, Booth does see light at the end of the tunnel as a result of Banyana’s recent success.

“When it comes to the women’s game, I think that Banyana have changed the stigma that has been attached to women playing football due to their success.

“I know for a fact that when you go to rural areas or in the township, there’s still a huge stereotype when it comes to parents letting young girls play football. They perceive it to be playing a boys’ sport and that their daughter is going to turn out lesbian.”

Booth claimed that in order to break this stereotype and grow the women’s game it is vital that from youth level up, girls are afforded opportunities to play football.

“The whole debate about equal pay — I feel that commercially, we’re far from ready for that. For example, in the US, they created legislation where they had to spend an equal amount of money on women’s sport as in men, which I don’t think we do at the moment,” he said. Booth was referring to Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prevents sex-based discrimination in education programs or activities that receive Federal funding.

“More importantly, the women’s game has developed to such an extent in the States that they draw just as much crowds as the men’s game. Therefore, commercially, money and sponsorship is going into the women’s game. Therefore, in my opinion, the women can call for equal pay,” he continued.

“In South Africa, we don’t even have a professional league and the women’s league that is up and running doesn’t draw enough crowds or doesn’t add enough commercial value yet to call for equal pay.

“If we were able to offer equal opportunity at a young age, that will soon and very quickly change. Hopefully we do that soon, because a young girl deserves the same opportunity as a young boy.”

A study by Cynthia Fabrizio Pelak published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport (2005), found that of all obstacles to women in South Africa seeking to develop their football skills, financial constraints were the most pervasive. Data was collected in 1999 and 2000.

41.1% of respondents to an open-ended question asking them to identify obstacles to women athletes which men did not face cited material resources. The bulk of those mentioned a lack of sponsorship and financial support.

Furthermore, 34.5% of respondents to a closed-ended question asking them to choose from 13 factors inhibiting their progress as footballers cited cost. 6% of respondents cited negative views from family.

Banyana Banyana Coach and former midfielder, Desiree Ellis, regularly cites her late father, Ernest, as a major influence in her career.

“My father was my biggest critic, but he was also my biggest supporter,” Ellis told Extra Time Media.

“He took me to the field. Wherever I needed to be, he always made sure that I got there on time, that I got whatever I needed. He never got to see me play for the national team, but I’m sure he was watching from above.

“My mother has been very supportive and the rest of the family as well.”

In her family’s backing, Ellis was afforded what many young girls in South Africa are denied. However, even her parents could not shield her from the financial challenges faced by women in South African football.

“I lost my job when I played for the national team, so then, it became difficult, of course. Buying a pair of boots is then the furthest from your mind because you’re jobless,” said Ellis, who worked at a butchery.

“On the way back [from being with the national team], we got a puncture and they said I absconded. That was when I lost my job, and I was out of work for three years. Those were really tough times.”

According to Ellis, women’s football in South Africa has progressed in leaps and bounds since.

“The sport is still purely amateur — the national league as well, but back in the day, I think 90% of the players were unemployed. Now, I think 90% of the players either have a degree, or they are currently studying, or they have a degree and are still studying,” she said.

“Varsity Football has become big and it’s given players an opportunity to study.

“Back in the day when I was playing, the very first game we had, we had one t-shirt that we trained in. Now, you have a selection of clothes that you train in. Players are personally sponsored and a lot more players are playing abroad now.”

However, Ellis was unsurprised by Booth’s comments about attitudes within the dressing room during his playing career, which overlapped with hers.

“I speak under correction, but I think a lot of money in the male sport has changed the game a lot,” she said.

“You don’t see the female footballers ducking and diving really. They just want to play the game all the time. Like I said, I speak under correction because I don’t know what transpires really in the male game. I’ve never been involved in men’s football at all.”

One woman who has, however, is Highlands Park Biokineticist Simone Conley. Having worked in both rugby and football, she feels more at home in the latter.

“When I worked within rugby, I didn’t feel as comfortable as I do working in football. I don’t think it has anything to do with a gender role; I just think I identify better with football as a sport and I identify better with football people as opposed to rugby people,” Conley said.

“In rugby, I worked with a female doctor and physiotherapist. There were a lot more females involved when I worked in rugby compared to now while I am in football. Sometimes, it’s not the industry. It’s the individual; it’s the woman. Perhaps the opportunity doesn’t exist, but sometimes, you’ve got to be brave enough to go and create that opportunity for yourself.”

She has worked with the South African Olympic men’s football team too and becoming an increasingly seasoned campaigner. However, Conley admitted to having had to silence critics at times.

“The early stages — it was a situation where I had not worked in club football before. Yes, I’d worked at development level with the Nedbank Ke Yona team search. I’ve worked at national level with Bafana U20 [Amajita] and U23 [Amaglug-glug],” she recalled.

“A lot of management and so on, they judge you. It’s: ‘Ok, she’s been with national teams and development, but that’s different. This is the PSL (Premier Soccer League) — or the NFD (National First Division) at that time. This is week-in-week-out.’

“I had no experience in this particular setting, but I think I slowly but surely showed them that I’m deserving of a better outlook. I needed to prove myself and I think that was a good thing, because it kept me on my toes.”

Proving herself to seniors has not been the only struggle Conley has faced during her career in football. In addition, she has had to deal with unwanted advances from players. This, however happened to her in rugby too.

“I’ve been in situations where it’s been difficult because they make comments about my body or how I look, or they try to have a relationship with me that would be more than a working relationship.

“To me, it was never a big issue because I know my character and I also know where to draw the line. I’d laugh about it.

“It’s a little bit of a difficult thing because some players would really flirt with me and try to the maximum, where they’d want to take me on a date and that sort of thing.

“You don’t want to be mean to them because the next day, they might snub you at training or they might not listen to what you do or try and be difficult, but you also don’t want to be too kind to them.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act where I’ve got to laugh it off so that they aren’t angry at me, but they also understand that they’re not going to be able to cross that line.”

Conley does, however, feel that players respect the work she does in football.

“In terms of my profession, I’ve never been looked at as: ‘She’s a woman, how can she be telling us what to do? What does she know about football? How is she going to guide us and help us,’” Conley said.

“Maybe in their minds, they were thinking that, and then once they really got to experience the way I do things and how I apply myself in training sessions, they realised the value that I could add to them as individuals.

“I also think what maybe helped nullify that sort of thought or that sort of talk from players was how the coaches introduced me to them.

“I think that’s important. If the coach shows that he trusts what you’ve done and he explains to the players: ‘Look here: this is the same person who has done XYZ and that is why we brought her in,’ then I think it opens the players’ minds.”

Highlands Park Head Coach Owen da Gama has made no secret of his respect for Conley. Speaking to the media in September 2019, he said: “All credit must go to our biokineticist. It’s everything, it’s scientifically done. By the way, she’s not a physical trainer, she’s a biokineticist.

“I just want you to get that because it’s quite insulting if somebody is called a physical trainer and yet they’ve got degrees.”

Speaking on da Gama standing up for her, Conley said: “I don’t feel offended, I don’t feel undermined in any way [by inaccurate reporting of her job title]. I just feel that within our club structures there are management people that sort of undermine my qualifications. Maybe that’s where the coach’s frustration comes in.

“Also because, you know, I think he’s seen my value from a very long time ago, when I started working with him, Coach Shakes Mashaba, Mike Mangena and Coach Khabo Zondo at the Nedbank Ke Yona team.

“I think that the respect that he has for my qualifications and how I do things has to do with a situation where I had to make do with very little.

“Also, I think there are a lot of fitness trainers that met up with him at Virgin Active or wherever and asked if they can come and work at a PSL club — ‘How can I work? Can I give you my CV?’ Then they’ve got this little four-month course, or four-week course, or six-week course.

“He compares that to someone like me who studied for eight years to be where I am. I think that’s where he makes that comparison and says I don’t deserve to be called a fitness trainer.”

Football has been a trendsetter for other sports in terms of racial unification in South Africa. However, in terms of gender equality, there is still some way to go.

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Leonard Solms
Leonard Solms is a freelance South African multi-sport journalist who has written for a number of regional, national and international newspapers and websites. He won a Rhodes-Investec Top 100 Award in 2018, the year in which he completed his Bachelor of Journalism at Rhodes University.