Black and white, Lucas Radebe and Mark Fish made up the centre-back pairing in South Africa’s dream team, the increasingly mythical side that won the 1996 CAF Africa Cup of Nations Both went on to play in Europe at the highest level, Radebe captaining Leeds United to the UEFA Champions League semi-final and spending a decade at Elland Road, while Fish played in Serie A with Lazio and at Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic in England’s Premier League.
Together the pair wrote a book, ‘Madiba’s Boys’, juxtaposing their lives on either side of the racial divide in South Africa. Fish, although from a poor, working class background and brought up by a single mother, had the benefits of the apartheid system that kept blacks legally subjugated. Radebe, who hails from Soweto and was shot in the leg during anti-apartheid riots, suffered under the institutionalised discrimination of the day.
Today they are both ambassadors for the game, and increasingly revered for their role in putting South Africa on the footballing map after decades of isolation, as well as presenting a symbol of a new unity between races. As part of its anti-discrimination series, FIFA.com speaks to the pair about the scourge of racism
FIFA.com: Do you still feel the effects of institutionalised discrimination that was part of the rule of law in South Africa when you were growing up?
Lucas Radebe: Yes, definitely in the sense that we never got a proper education because of the colour of our skin and we were left behind. We lack knowledge and understanding. It is almost if we are having to always play catch-up. Opportunity came later in life to us and only really because of footballing talent
Mark Fish: For me it was different of course, but you probably do have the effects lingering throughout society. It took a while after the first South African elections in 1994 for people to have a proper opportunity.
If you look back at my career, I tried extra hard to prove the racists wrong. It did not happen to me much but it was vicious and hurtful when it did.
Did discrimination play a role in your respective football careers?
Radebe: For me the racism from terraces in Europe spurred me on and made me stronger. It is strange to say this, but sometimes it was a positive. If you look back at my career, I tried extra hard to prove the racists wrong. It did not happen to me much but it was vicious and hurtful when it did.
Fish: I was one of a few white players at a black club, and there were never any problems for me. And if there was ever discrimination against people, you had a feeling that they got on it with it - that they sought to rise above it.
How much do you think football has done to break down discriminatory barriers?
Radebe: Football has played a pivotal role in curtailing discrimination and unifying all the races. Certainly it has helped a lot in South Africa. We have managed to get to a point now where people don’t see colour all that much and that is great for the country and for the whole African continent. But we have to keep striving to highlight the ills of discrimination.
Fish: I think football has played a major part. If you see how it has helped unify South Africans since 1996 it has been incredible. But since the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ I’ve been astonished at the number of Afrikaner people, who always only played rugby, coming up to me and wanting to find out home their kids can play football. That just shows the power of the game to break down barriers.
Will we ever see a discrimination-free society?
Radebe: I would certainly hope so; I still believe it is possible, yes. It is especially true in South Africa now that we have our democracy and our freedom. Of course there is still discrimination and we have to hope that ends and everyone truly lives in harmony with each other.
Fish: Society is certainly heading in the right direction, but it still pains me to see how players like Samuel Eto’o can be treated or the black players in the England team come in for abuse when they travel abroad. That makes me suggest it is still far away but we can only hope that attitudes are changing.