Coventry City club historian Jim Brown remembers the first black South African to play first-class football in England at the Sky Blues...
Steve 'Kalamazoo' Mokone died in Washington DC, four days short of his 83rd birthday, March 20th, 2015.
Mokone was not only the first black South African to play first-class football in England but also the first to play outside his native country. Although he only played a handful of games for Coventry City, his story is an amazing one that has been the subject of two books and a film!
Older fans will remember the buzz in the mid 1950s when Mokone arrived at Highfield Road. He hailed from Doornfontein and played for Durban Bush Bucks FC, also appearing for the Natal Province XI and the South African Bantu XI- the highest honour at the time for a non-European in the country.
He apparently wrote to City for a trial after seeing their name in his local newspaper and Charlie Buchan, the legendary Sunderland, Arsenal and England player, put up £100 for his fare. It took the South African authorities almost a year to issue Steve with his passport. At the time South Africa were under an apartheid regime and any black person wanting to travel overseas was considered a threat. When the passport was finally issued he was told, “Stay out of politics, or else.” Mokone was not overtly political but he knew some senior ANC figures, including Dr William Nkomo, a close associate of Nelson Mandela. He gave up his job as a clerk in a Pretoria Government office & left his wife and six month old son to come to Coventry for an extended trial in August 1956.
‘Kalamazoo’, as he was nicknamed, impressed City's coach, the legendary George Raynor, who had led Sweden to great feats on the world stage. Steve had wonderful dribbling skills and devastating pace and his touch and trickery was something rarely seen in English Division Three. He took some time to adapt to English pitches – he had never played on grass before – but scored in a practice match at Highfield Road a day after arriving & two weeks later scored the winning goal on his Reserve team debut at St Andrews. Meanwhile he was given part-time work in the offices of City director Phil Mead & lodging with two other City players, Roy Proverbs & Alf Bentley. Former City player Lol Harvey remembers him well: 'We called him Kal & he was a lovely man, always happy with a big smile & everybody who met him liked him. I played in his debut in the reserves at St Andrews & he didn't have any shin pads. We told him he was mad playing without them but he insisted they would hamper his style & wanted to play with his socks rolled down'.
His first-team debut came on 13 October 1956 at Highfield Road against Millwall. Playing at outside left, Mokone was in dazzling form & Nemo wrote in the Coventry Telegraph: 'Mokone's form was a revelation.... he created opening after opening only for his colleagues to fritter them away. He showed excellent ball control and positional sense, and was always ready to shoot first time.' The match report said that Mokone's selection had added 5,000 to the gate & he set up City's goal in a 1-2 defeat.
Two days later he set up two goals in a 3-2 Floodlit friendly victory over Nottingham Forest & the following morning signed a professional contract. Against Brighton a week later he came up against Jim Langley, the best left-back in the division who would play for England within eighteen months, and Kal found the full-back 'too much for him'. His first goal came in a 4-1 home win over Gillingham a week later but Nemo's report was not as flattering: 'foot-fluttering over the ball may look very good to the spectators, but not always to his colleagues who have run into position for a quick pass or centre'. With friendly matches virtually every week that autumn, Mokone struggled to keep up his form & he was disappointing in a defeat at Swindon. After four league games & three friendlies he was rested.
November 1956 was a traumatic month for the club, even by City's standards. Coach Raynor left 'by mutual consent' as manager Harry Warren sought to turn the team's poor form around. His replacement was former England & Arsenal hard-man Wilf Copping, who had a reputation for being a tough taskmaster on the training ground. Then, the club's England goalkeeper Reg Matthews was sold to Chelsea for a record fee of £22,000.
Lol Harvey remembers how, after training at Highfield Road, Mokone would lay bets with Matthews, that he could score penalties against him, and usually won handsomely. He also recalls a practice match between the first team & the reserves at Highfield Road when Mokone took a penalty & started his run up from the halfway line!
Mokone was back in the reserves, scoring goals & doubling attendances for reserve games but was unhappy. In early January 1957, the Coventry Telegraph reported that he had asked for a transfer saying that 'he had not been given the chances for the training he expected' and that 'the club does not seem to be interested in developing me'. The club refuted his allegations but agreed to waive his contract & gave him a 'free' transfer. He continued to play for the club's reserves & A team & in February netted four goals in three reserve games prompting a call-up for the first-team's floodlit friendly with Akademisk Boldklub of Copenhagen.
He scored the only goal against the Danes and according to Nemo: 'it was his colourful dashes down the wing which drew most of the applause'. Later that month, he played in a benefit match against an All-Star Managers XI. Sadly that would be his last first-team game & at the end of the season he left the club but not before a gracious farewell message for the fans: 'I am deeply grateful to them for all their support & encouragement, which has meant so much to me. I shall take with me many happy memories of the Coventry people.'
Steve joined Dutch club Heracles of Almelo, a small town near the German border. In the 1957-58 season, he helped them win the championship of Division 3 B and was voted player of the season by the fans. He played for Heracles for two seasons becoming a local legend, even appearing in a friendly game against Santos of Brazil for whom Pele appeared. His time at Almelo was recounted in detail in De Zwarte Meteoor (The Black Meteor) written by Dutch football journalist Tom Egbers in the late 1990s and the book was later made into a film. There is a street named after Mokone in Almelo and one of the stands in Heracles’s Polman Stadion is dedicated to him.
In 1959, he tried his luck in the Football League again and joined Cardiff City, then a Second Division side. He played only two games for the Welsh side, including a 3-2 win over Liverpool when he scored the opening goal. The club tried to force him to play through an ankle injury and Mokone refused; he was not selected for the first team again.
Next stop was Barcelona who loaned him out to Marseille. He never appeared for either club but in the south of France he ran a small factory manufacturing ‘Mokone’ football boots. In 1961, in a spell with Barnsley, he made a solitary appearance.
He married South African Joyce Maaga in 1961 and after a year in Rhodesia, they moved to Italy where he had a brief period with Torino. In one match, he scored four goals against Verona and was hailed as the new Eusebio (then the top African player in the world).
At the time the Italian football writer Beppe Branco wrote: 'If Pele of Brazil is the Rolls-Royce of soccer players, Stanley Matthews of England the Mercedes-Benz and Alfredo di Stéfano of Argentina and Spain the Cadillac of soccer players, then Kala of South Africa, lithe and lean, is surely the Maserati.'
After a brief spell in Australia in 1964 playing for Sunshine George Cross in Melbourne, he moved to the USA and became a mature student in Washington, ultimately gaining three degrees and qualifying as a Doctor of Psychology. His marriage was in trouble however and there was a custody battle over the daughter of the marriage, Thandi. Three violent assaults took place. First, Steve was attacked by three unknown assailants. Next, his wife’s lawyer was attacked with acid. Then Joyce herself was similarly attacked. Mokone was arrested and despite maintaining his innocence was jailed for 12 years. Later Tom Egbers would discover evidence that made the verdicts questionable and that South African authorities had asked the American CIA to bring Mokone, who had been increasingly political with the anti-apartheid movement in the US, to heel. Egbers would later write a second book, Twaalf Gestolen Jaren (Twelve Stolen Years), which, like the first book, was only released in Dutch.
After leaving prison in 1990 – where he ran the library and the football team – he took up his psychology again before retiring some years later with heart trouble. In 2003 he became the second South African sportsman to be recognised as a member of the Order of Ikhamanga, for exceptional achievement in the field of soccer and an outstanding contribution to the development of non-racial sport. He joined the Former Players Association (CCFPA) a few years ago & enjoyed hearing news of his former colleagues, especially Lol Harvey, George Curtis & Roy Proverbs.
Ironically, CCFPA’s Mike Young had only just put Steve in touch with a Ed Aarons, a Guardian journalist who was preparing a book on the contribution and history of Black African footballers to the game.
Mokone had a brief but memorable time at Highfield Road. His fall from grace at Coventry coincided with George Raynor's departure from the club & one is left wondering what might have happened if Raynor had stayed & coached what was undoubtedly a great talent. That someone with Kalamazoo's talent couldn't get into a poor City side that struggled to avoid re-election that season almost sixty years ago is a mystery.