Footy in South Africa

by Ian Syson

I just found this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald from 1933. It’s both interesting and poignant I think. It tends to back up those who are skeptical about the possibility of footy taking root in South Africa — though I guess we live in very different times. The final point about the rules is telling also.

I’ve cut the first part of the article but if anyone wants me to I can post it.

The Sydney Morning Herald Wednesday 9 August 1933



. . . After the Boer War there was a fairly large Australian community in the Cape, as well as In Durban and the Transvaal. Many of us had not previously seen either Rugby or Soccer. We formed an Australian Football Association. I have the minute book before me as I write.


Our ground was on historic Green Point Common, then cleared of its tents and khaki thrones. No smooth swarded billiard table like the arenas of Sydney and Melbourne, but a rough and pebblv space enclosed by a boundary line of our own marking. We erected our own goal posts. Most of us sprigged our own boots. They were quite as comfort- able and effective as the modern factory article.

Our guernseys were sleeveless, of canvas, with lace-up fronts, Though they bore no numbers, every player took pride in being properly uni- formed. We played our matches to constant cheering. That was because the Australian community, including many Rugby exiles from New South Wales and Queensland, were there to encourage us, and to barrack. But, though admission was free to the world, our following was restricted. We made no converts among the Rugby-educated Afrikanders.

The association used to hold its meetings in a hotel in Long-street, Capetown. At the conclusion of business it was the custom to have a “bob-in.” The change, from the first round that is, went to the association funds.

There is a minute relating to the purchase of two sets of guernseys. The colours resembled those of Essendon and Geelong; we already had Carlton and Collingwood on show. The secretary was empowered to buy them in accordance with sample submitted at 3/11 each! They were as durable as they were presentable.

Until 1905 we battled against the forces of “ignorance.” The loyal Australian community was diminishing, some returning to their native land, others wearing past the age of athletic conflict. We had 38 stout players in our last season, fully paid as to subscription. Enough for two teams? Yes, and more. With one match a Saturday, we continued to conduct a competition.

The heaviest tax was on the ingenuity of our publicity officer. The Capetown papers generously gave us space. His task was to see that when Brown, Jones, and Robinson excelled it was for Federals. A description of Gumnuts’ win habitually eulogised the deeds of Smith. Williams, and Anderson. During the season every player was honourably mentioned, and none appeared for more than one club.

The association disbanded through lack of recruits. The younger members drifted mainly to Rugby clubs. Nowhere in the world could they have found harder or better schools. Genuinely I prefer Rugby, but when I hear the Australian game vilified by those who have not made the slightest study of its objects and teachings, my mind travels back to those splendid comrades of adolescence, and I smile.

On those in control depends the maintenance of any pastime. There is an ever-present urge to alter rules, but It is a mistake to think that all change is progress, and there is too big a tendency to pander to the unenlightened public. From the secretary of the Victorian League we secured in Capetown a copy of the rules of 30 years ago. One would not recognise them in the handbook now issued by the National Council.


  1. Very interesting and poignant as you described, Ian.

    It raises a number of questions, not least of which is, what lead you to be reading that particular copy of the Sydney Morning Herald from 1933?

  2. Ian Syson says


    I’m researching the history of war and football (all codes) among other things and I have been putting various search terms into the NLA digital newspaper archive (eg and finding all sorts of material. I’m especially interested in the role of Australian soccer players in WW1 and the extent to which the code is stopped in its tracks by the war.

    If you have time have a look at the database. It’s amazing. If you have any research interest in Australian history this will change your life — I guarantee it.

  3. Ian Syson says

    For example I just found this report from the Argus in 1926

    Attendances and Receipts.

    In the absence of any League premiership

    games and little Interest in the interstate match many football enthusiasts took a holiday on Saturday. Those particularly keen on a cold, blustery, showery day went to the Association matches, which benefited considerably. The figures are:


    Victoria v. New South Wales. 7400 £333


    Brunswick v. Coburg. 15,000 £240 . . .

    Twice as many went to Brunswick as went to the MCG to see an interstate game. I guess the cost of admission might have had something to do with it.

  4. Dave Nadel says

    There is quite a bit of evidence about Australian Rules Football in South Africa (see Hess et al. “A National Game” p.121-2) Around the same period Australian Rules had a footing in New Zealand (See various publications by Rob Hess) and there is also a story about Australian Football being played by workers on the Clyde – although I have never been able to track down a credible reference for that.

    I suspect that football allegiance was more fluid a century ago as all the games were still developing and soccer had not developed the world wide strength it had after World War One. I am not very optimistic about footy’s prospects in South Africa but I don’t think that the experiences in 1902-5 prove anything either way.

  5. Ian Syson says

    Dave, Isn’t the NZ connection of a different order from SA or Scotland? The lessons I take from the piece in the SMH are more applicable to soccer in country Victoria in 1913 than they are to footy today. They show the difficulty of transplanting a culture when you have no sense of a grass roots or cultural critical mass (a bit like the Storm today really). Footy might or might not establish itself in South Africa. If it does it will be because of the investment of the AFL and the strategic use of television — neither of which were available to post Boer War aussies.

  6. Dave Nadel says

    Ian, New Zealand probably is of a different order to South Africa and Scotland, but the point is that footy didn’t really build permanent links there either. I agree with the rest of your comments.

  7. Ian Syson says

    Funnily enough Dave, when I lived in Auckland in 80-81 a mate of a mate found out I was Australian. He asked me if I was interested in playing Australian rules. Alas I couldn’t help him out. They had an 8-team comp and the results were posted in the sports pages of the main broadsheet each Monday.

  8. Ian, if you need a research assistant, just let me know! I do have a great research interest in Australian history. I’m scared to follow the link you’ve given because if I do, I might never return…

  9. Ian Syson says

    Gigs, have a chat with our mutual friend because you never know when I might need an RA.

  10. Hendrik Snyders says

    Hi Ian

    I am a South African with an interest in researching the early history of Aussie Rules. I have mined the National Library database that you referred to and found quite interesting materials. More is however needed, also links to original archives, personal letter diaries etc. Any assistance from whoever would be most welcom.



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