Moonlighters Football Club: A History
By Peter Alegi with Robert Vassen
Moonlighters was a pioneering black football club in South Africa. Indian hotel workers founded it in 1892 in Johannesburg. This study of Moonlighters Football Club opens a new window on the pivotal significance of football in the social history of the Indian community. Interviews with former members of Moonlighters focus on the importance of football in childhood and its powerful influence in shaping family and neighborhood bonds. The story of Moonlighters also serves to illustrate the game’s broader transformation from amateurism to professionalism and eventually as a positive social force for the breakdown of racial segregation in black football.
In 1860, the British government recruited Indians as indentured laborers to work in the rich sugar plantations of Natal, South Africa. These indentured laborers came from all parts of India, but the majority came from South India, notably Tamil Nadu. After completing their period as indentured laborers, the families or individuals had the choice of returning to India or remaining in South Africa. The majority chose to remain, most of them settling in Natal. A small minority chose to venture further afield and the preference was Johannesburg in the then-province of Transvaal.
In this same period, other Indians, mostly from the state of Gujerat, emigrated to South Africa. They came as ‘free’ or passenger Indians’ and, as such, settled where they chose to. This group was essentially a merchant class group and settled in the towns as well as fairly remote areas where they set up general stores.
When gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, a significant number of families of Indian origin settled in the Johannesburg suburbs of Doornfontein (established in 1886-87) and Fordsburg (1888). Most merchant Indians probably went to live in Doornfontein while the “passenger Indians” chose Fordsburg. At about this time, many of the former indentured male workers who chose to stay in South Africa after their contracts expired went to work in hotels as chefs or waiters. This, most likely, is where the story of Moonlighters began—a club that would eventually become famous nationally and would enjoy an illustrious place in the annals of black football.
The Founding Myth
While no written records about the establishment of Moonlighters have survived, a founding myth has been handed down generation by generation through oral tradition. It goes something like this: On a warm summer evening in 1892, Mr. Marian, possibly a Mr. Peters, and one or two others Indian waiters employed at the Moon Hotel were sitting in the courtyard having their dinner and chatting. Soon the conversation turned to sport, and in particular to football. One of the waiters was the great-grandfather of Ivan Naidoo, himself a football player and coach of known repute in the 1950s and 1960s and an authority on the early days of Indian football. Ivan takes up the story: “…They were looking for a name [for the soccer team they wished to start]. It was a summer evening; they looked up at the sky and they saw [a] bright moon shining.” According to Ivan, a combination of the name of the hotel and the bright moon prompted one of the group to suggest they call the club “Moonlighters.”
Watch Vassen interview segment